Interview with Professor Ofer Sharone, PhD on Long-Term Unemployment

About Dr. Ofer Sharone, PhD: Professor Sharone is an Assistant Professor of Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is also a nationally recognized expert on long-term unemployment and its effect on white-collar workers in America and other countries. Professor Sharone’s research concerns the different institutions, social conventions, and assumptions that affect job seekers’ experiences and self-perception.

Prior to earning his PhD in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Sharone earned a JD from Harvard Law School and a BA in economics from the University of Illinois. Ofer Sharone was compensated to participate in this interview.

[Question] How did you get interested in researching long-term unemployment? What motivated you to write your book and start the Institute for Career Transitions (ICT)?

[Professor Sharone] I got interested in this issue as a graduate student. I was doing a PhD in Sociology at UC Berkeley, and my initial research was actually about high-tech workers and long work hours. But at the time I was doing this research, the bubble burst around the year 2000. What was very surprising to me and to the people who got caught up in it more directly (that is, the workers), was the number of people who had done everything that society told them you need to do to be successful–they went to college, they sometimes had masters degrees or PhD degrees, and years of working experience. And yet these individuals saw themselves unemployed and sometimes unable to get to any job for months and sometimes for years.

This was all around me as a graduate student, and even though it was not yet as big or brutal a national event as came later with the Great Recession, being in the Bay Area during this time was an early experience of what was to later come in 2008. So this is how I got into the issue, and I began doing interviews of unemployed individuals. I’m a qualitative sociologist, so I do in-depth interviews with people. I began asking people about the experience of job searching, how they understood the obstacles they faced, and I came to realize that looking for work is a kind of work in itself, and it’s probably among the hardest kinds of work that exist. It’s extremely emotionally difficult–it’s essentially straight up rejection. And I was very interested in how people felt with that, and in documenting some of the pain and hardship that people described to me.

I also became interested in comparing the experience of unemployed job seekers cross-nationally. My research became driven by the question, “Is what I’m seeing among American white-collar professionals universal for similar types of workers?” That question lead to my book, Flawed System, Flawed Self, which is a cross-national comparison of the experience of job searching and unemployment for this group of highly educated, skilled workers. I learned in the process how actually very different that experience can be–the sense of self-blame, and the emotional toll can be very different depending on how one needs to look for work.

Finally, to answer your question about the Institute for Career Transitions, after I published the book, which documents the difficulties associated with long-term unemployment for this group, I had this burning sense of wanting to do something about it, and see if I could help. And I’m a researcher, so I’m not directly qualified to help, but I was lucky enough to find a very motivated, idealistic group of coaches and career counselors in Boston who read my book, and who kind of got it that this is a really important issue, and that something needs to be done. So in the past year I’ve had 60 coaches and counselors sign up to do pro-bono work with people I’ve matched them with who are long-term unemployed. And we’ve been tracking the process and the outcomes, seeing what works, and seeing how helpful support can be, understanding what’s helpful about it and maybe how we can get better. It’s been very gratifying to be involved in not only documenting the hardship but also trying to figure out ways to help.

[Question] What are the primary causes of long-term unemployment in America? What are the primary barriers that prevent long-term unemployed individuals from finding jobs? Is it a matter of skill deterioration, or a lack of confidence? How much do structural barriers such as employer discrimination factor into long-term unemployed individuals’ struggles to find employment?

[Professor Sharone] It’s a big question. Long-term unemployment is a phenomenon that has many causes, and for different groups, there are different primary causes. So what I think is important in answering the question is to say that we have been thinking about it too simplistically. The dominant way of thinking about long-term unemployment in the United States, at least at the level of policy makers and in the general popular understanding, is that it is typically about education, and that it is a problem of people not having sufficient education or sufficient skills. And so if you believe that, then the solution is retraining, or investing more in education. I think that this is only a partial story or explanation of what’s going on. I’m not going to deny that for some, and maybe even for substantial numbers, education is an issue, and the problem could be helped through improved access to education. However, I think that we must also recognize that it’s not only about education–we can see this fact from the people that I study, who in some cases have PhDs. I’m contacted by PhDs from MIT who are stuck in long-term unemployment.

We have data that shows that the likelihood of someone becoming long-term unemployed, oncehe or she is unemployed, does not differ greatly across education levels. The likelihood of you falling into long-term unemployment is just as great if you have a college degree than if you have a high school diploma.

Not to confuse things–there are very different unemployment rates depending on level of education. People with college degrees have a lower unemployment rate–that’s definitely true. But if they happen to become unemployed, like when there’s a massive round of layoffs, which there is almost every day somewhere, once they are unemployed, their chances of falling into the trap of long-term unemployment is just as high as people with less education. So then we have to think, “Why is that?” What happened to create that trap? And it’s not all explained by education.

I think here it’s helpful to look at studies that maybe others have already mentioned to you. Like the one by Rand Ghayad, and others who have done audit studies where they send out resumes that are fictitious but which answer real job openings. In these studies, the researchers control what varies. So they will vary the duration of unemployment, the level of education, and/or the types of skills, and they found that someone unemployed for six months or longer is much less likely to be invited to an interview than someone without the right skills who is just short-term unemployed. Which is a very solid way of showing the power of the stigma against someone who is six months unemployed, and that it’s not about skills. If it were about skills, you should be interviewing the person who has the right skills match, and not the person with no relevant skills. So I think that this employer discrimination is a really important and under-discussed part of the story.

Another major challenge for long-term unemployed individuals is what I would call the emotional hit. I’ve come to the conclusion that basically nobody who faces this structural situation can come away unscathed. It’s a very specific situational context that creates emotional turmoil. The context of–you are applying for jobs, hundreds and hundreds of jobs, typically, and you’re getting either no response at all (what all the job seekers I talk to call the black hole) or you’re getting rejected, and typically those rejections feel very personalized in the American case. This is because the typical pattern is you get into the black hole by applying to jobs online, and because there’s a systematic filtering of those who are long-term unemployed, your applications are filtered out, so really your only chance is to network.

So then you begin networking, which actually is the correct move, but it’s also intensely vulnerable. You are putting yourself out there in a very personal way, and connecting with people, connecting with people you’ve worked with in the past, or perhaps new people. And to be effective you really need to try and create a personal connection, which is the right strategy given how our labor market works and the power of referrals in the white collar labor market. But networking also needs to be recognized as very very emotionally difficult, vulnerable work, and one that could benefit from a lot of support. And that’s one of the motivations behind the ICT. Even writing cover letters is a very vulnerable activity in the U.S. case, because it’s all about fit and conveying why you as a person are a good fit. The more it becomes about you in the application process, which it very much is in the American white-collar case, the more the rejection is taken to be about you too, and that’s when you start to feel, “Something may be wrong with me.” So that becomes another cause. It becomes a vicious cycle. Once you’re caught in this trap of–you’re not hearing from employers, you have to network, networking is very difficult, the emotional toll that takes–clearly it becomes hard to be an optimal job seeker. To be able to generate the same kind of confidence that you would have as someone who is currently working, and who has all the social support that comes from that, is very difficult.

So that’s where I see a huge need for intervention, to recognize this emotional toll, to say that as a society it’s unacceptable for people to be excluded from the job market. To do everything we can to deal with it and to deal with the discrimination–that is one set of actions that needs to happen. And then we also need to deal with the emotional toll by supporting job seekers through one-on-one coaching and small groups. These kinds of interventions I think are crucial. I hope that helps. It’s a very hard question.

[Question] The Institute for Career Transitions’ job search support project sounds like a fantastic initiative that can and should be implemented at other organizations. During the implementation of this program, what strategies and support techniques did the career coaches find to work particularly well?

[Professor Sharone] Finding out what works well for career support is actually what we are currently doing. We are doing the research on what is effective; we can see pretty easily that it is helpful–compared to a control group, the people getting support are more likely to find a job. While we know that, the harder job is finding out, what about the support is, supportive? Really that’s the question. So I’ll tell you–so far it’s not like the career coaches at the ICT have some secret sauce. They are not revealing to the job seeker some special technique of job searching or applying that the job seeker has not heard before. The effective approaches for job searching are available in books, and they’re not a secret. So what is effective about support? It’s really about helping people maintain resilience, energy, confidence, along with some customized strategies. But I think the first three are actually the more important.

Usually interventions are looked at from more of a psychological frame. And what I’m doing here is looking at it from a more sociological frame. What I see the interventions as doing, is clarifying for the job seeker the institutional terrain in which they are operating. By institutional terrain I mean the practices of employers, the kinds of obstacles that are out there for someone who is long-term unemployed, what matters in hiring, what matters in networking. A clear understanding of these elements of the job search and the challenge they pose is not just helpful for strategy–it’s really helpful for understanding negative outcomes in the short run. So once you understand the obstacles, you also see that it is not impossible, it just requires a long long time at it–it’s like a marathon rather than a sprint. You’re much better positioned to understand setbacks, to understand why you’re not getting responses back from the employer. It’s not a reflection of you as an individual job seeker; you are an agent acting in a much larger structural context where others just like you who are very qualified are in the same boat. So it depersonalizes the process and that helps in terms of allowing the job seeker to reinterpret and reframe what is happening.

Without intervention, the default frame of what’s happening for job seekers is, “I’m not hearing back from employers because, well, I may not be as skilled or as good as I thought. Or maybe my skills are good but my interpersonal skills are not good, or something else is coming through that reveals an individual shortcoming.” And so the more you see these negative results, the more you find it hard to keep going, and the less good you are at job searching, because you lose confidence. Now the intervention that provides a more institutional, structural understanding of what’s going on, helps the job seeker understand and interpret the difficulties as not necessarily having anything to do with them; instead, they can view these difficulties as a reflection of hiring practices outside of their control, biases on the part of the employers, the tough economy, and/or the fact that there are so many job seekers and so fewer jobs. There’s a whole different set of explanations that really helps with the resilience and keeping going. And with playing the game more smartly–that’s a part of it. But I think the bigger part is the frame of interpretation for what’s happening right now in the job search for me, and having a more sociological understanding of that, which allows you to keep going.

[Question] What are the effects of long-term unemployment, not just on the individual struggling to find a job, but also on the society overall?

[Professor Sharone] One thing to note is, for every person who is experiencing long-term unemployment, there is a whole network of people who are suffering as a result. The spouse, the parents, the children, these are kind of collateral victims–they are just as much, often, victims of this as the job seeker is. Long-term unemployment disrupts life: it means dislocation, it means having to sell homes, it means having to spend the money you might have saved for your kids’ college education or for your retirement. It means asking for money from people who are close to you. The first source of support for long-term unemployed individuals is often other family members, who may or may not actually be able to afford it. So there is definitely an impact beyond the job seeker individually.

I think there’s also the effect on the economy in the sense that we are losing a lot of available talent. There are extremely talented, educated, resourceful people who could be contributing who are being excluded from jobs because of a bias. So there’s a productivity or efficiency loss as an economy, because we’re not getting all the talent that we have. So that’s an economic argument, but there is also a moral point. I think just as we would find it totally unacceptable to have a society in which someone because of their race or because of their gender is not given the opportunity to contribute their talent to society, I think we should find it equally morally unacceptable to have a large group–millions of people–excluded from work because of a bias, namely the fact that they’ve been out of a job for six months. The assumption that this reflects something about you as a worker is extremely harmful, and it’s the same kind of bias as assuming that someone isn’t qualified due to their age or ethnicity or gender.

We have laws that protect against certain forms of employment discrimination. For example, we have age discrimination laws that reflect our belief that it is not okay for an employer to assume that just because you are 50 years old, you’re not qualified or skilled anymore. I think the same thinking should drive policies that say we don’t think it’s a good idea for employers to make an assumption that just because you’ve been unemployed for six months, you’re not good or skilled. It’s obviously hurtful to the individual, but it’s also hurtful to all of society because we create excluded groups of people, and I think that all of us lose our sense of faith and the hope in the American dream. We lose the sense that we live in a meritocracy where we’re going to be judged based on our abilities. So I think there is a deep socially important moral issue here that impacts all of us. We see more and more that people get classified and judged based on these other, very superficial markers. Very much like gender or age or race, superficial markers that we all agree should have no bearing on your opportunity to get employment. And I think the moral implications of the persistence of long-term unemployment in America have not been attended to sufficiently. There are a lot of arguments about the economic loss–there are a ton of policy papers out there about the negative impact of people not being able to contribute to the economy. I think there’s less about the moral consequences, and I believe that should be highlighted.

[Question] How can social workers who wish to help the long-term unemployed obtain the knowledge and training they need to support these individuals? When working with unemployed individuals, how does the role of the social worker differ from that of a career counselor?

[Professor Sharone] I think social workers actually possess some of the most important tools already to support people who are long-term unemployed. As part of the sociological intervention I mentioned earlier, social workers are very well situated to be able to help the job seeker contextualize the struggle that they face. To help them understand that this is part of a larger picture, and to diminish the self blame. I think social workers are trained in understanding these institutional dynamics and they bring tremendous value to the table with that.

I think where social workers may feel less qualified or trained is in helping people with the nitty gritty of job search, and this is something where I do think some basic training should be not hard to obtain. I don’t have great referrals off the top of my head, but I’m aware that the National Career Development Association has some kind of training, and I know there are other ones that are very good. In fact, one of our long-term goals at the ICT is to be able to provide this kind of training for people specifically interested in working with long-term unemployed individuals. We would like to provide a kind of comprehensive training for people who have already interacted with this group through related work, and who would like to gain more specialized knowledge. I encourage people like social workers to absolutely get into this–I think they have a lot to contribute. A lot of skills that frankly people doing the work already sometimes don’t have; other individuals with a formal career coaching certificate may be very good at helping people set and clarify their career goals, but may not be as skilled at the other stuff I mentioned, like clarifying the larger context. I think that is an incredibly important piece with this part of the population.

[Question] For people who are not in the career coaching, employment research, or social work fields, but who know and care about individuals who are long-term unemployed, do you have any suggestions as to how they can best help address this issue on an individual level, and possibly on a larger scale?

[Professor Sharone] It’s a good question. I just gave a talk at a synagogue on Friday in New York and someone asked the same exact question. I guess the first thing I would say is, if we’re talking about a friend, I would make sure not to avoid the issue with him or her. Many jobseekers I talk to tell me, “My friends really seem uncomfortable talking about my unemployment with me, and they treat it like it’s some sort of disease.” And I’m sure the friends are very well intentioned, and well meaning, but they’re just not sure how to bring it up.

I guess my guide for how to talk about it would be to not avoid it, and secondly, to really shy away from giving advice, because typically the jobseeker knows a lot more about his or her situation than someone from the outside. There’s a tendency if someone gets into a conversation with a friend who is long-term unemployed to try to fix the problem for them, saying, “Have you tried this? Have you tried that?” All sorts of well intentioned advice, but such input is often perceived by the job seeker as a kind of subtle critique; they can interpret it as, “Why aren’t you doing this, isn’t it your fault?” So I would resist the impulse to give advice, and would instead ask open-ended questions like, “So how has it been for you? How are you? Tell me about your experience.” Just to show a willingness to listen, an interest, a willingness to hear the really painful stuff. Often jobseekers will say that when I interview them, that’s the first time anyone has really asked them kind of probing, deep questions that invite them to candidly explain their experiences and their pain. And they do want to talk about it if they think someone is going to be empathetic and wants to hear. At least many people do.

So to be that kind of listener, with empathy, and less eager to advise, can be helpful. At the end, you can say something like, “Is there any way I can help you.” And now at that stage they may say, “Do you have any advice?” And then that’s a different situation and they’ve invited the input.

Often I think the best way to help, in addition to listening, is to think about whether you know anybody in your network that could be a lead for them. Because this is really how the game is played. And we can be critical of that–I am critical of that, but that’s the reality for jobseekers. Networking is the key, so you could help them by introducing them to people. Often networking is the way to get past the stigma, because if they get an introduction from you that says, “Joe is a great guy, and an amazing programmer,” just making up an example, someone trusts you, and therefore they may be wiling to overlook the fact that Joe has been unemployed for more than 6 months.

I think there’s also room to develop training for people who want to do peer support, and this is something we haven’t yet developed. And there is stuff like that in synagogues, churches, and similar institutions, but it’s very ad hoc, and I do think we need to develop more ways to “plug in” to people who want to help. We don’t really have a great national system where that can happen. You know in two years I hope to be telling you something different about that.

Thank you Dr. Ofer Sharone for your time and insight into long-term unemployment and helping the long-term unemployed.

Last updated: April 2020