Why Finding Work Is Nearly Impossible For The Long-Term Unemployed

This past Friday, the Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien dug up a study by Northeastern University which found that, after submitting an application for a job, a person’s chances of being called back for an interview completely collapse if they’ve been out of work for more than six months.

Researcher Rand Ghayad sent out 3,600 fake resumes to 600 job openings. He held constant the gender, educational background, and the racial ambiguity of the names of the fake applicants. But he mixed up how long the fake applicants had been out of work, how often they’d switched jobs, and whether they had any industry experience. In a result O’Brien understandably characterized as “terrifying,” the length of unemployment completely overwhelmed the other two variables as an influencing factor on who got a call back:

As long as you’ve been out of work for less than six months, you can get called back even if you don’t have experience. But after you’ve been out of work for six months, it doesn’t matter what experience you have. Quite literally. There’s only a 2.12 percentage point difference in callback rates for the long-term unemployed with or without industry experience. That’s compared to a 7.13 and 8.95 percentage point difference for the short-and-medium-term unemployed.

There was no similar drop-off for how often a worker had switched jobs in the past. Fake applicants who’d gone through five to six jobs but had experience in the relevant industry were still over 7 percent more likely to get a call back than those without experience. And the latter’s chances were roughly equal to someone who’d only held one or two jobs but lacked relevant experience.

O’Brien recommends that the government start targeting the long-term unemployed for hiring. (The long-term unemployment problem following the Great Depression, for example, arguably wasn’t solved until the mass government-hiring program otherwise known as World War II.) That’s further than any lawmakers have yet proposed going, but in 2011 President Obama and the Democrats tried to something about this exact problem. Their $447 billion American Jobs Act included a tax credit worth up to $4,000 a piece for any firm that hired someone who’d been out of work longer than six months.

The legislation was, of course, filibustered to death by Senate Republicans.

At that point, 6.2 million people were in the ranks of the long-term unemployed, and the number was still over 5 million as September 2012. No small part of that decrease is due to people giving up on finding work entirely, and thus no longer showing up as part of the labor force. The longer these Americans have to go without the chance to work, the more damage is done to their own individual ability to flourish, and thus to the long-term health of the economy as a whole.