How Social Workers Can Help the Long-Term Unemployed
Long term unemployment, which is defined as being without work for 27 weeks (6 months) or longer while actively looking for a job, is an incredibly concerning and persistent challenge facing American society today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are currently 2.9 million long-term unemployed individuals in the United States, which constitutes about 32 percent of the nation’s unemployed population overall. This number does not include people who have lost their jobs and given up on looking for employment.
During the Great Recession and its aftermath, long-term unemployment reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. In 2010, 45 percent of unemployed Americans reported being out of work for 6 months or longer, according to The Urban Institute. In contrast, the long-term unemployed comprised about 25 percent of all unemployed individuals during the 1980s recession. Furthermore, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that, even as the American economy has begun its gradual recovery from the Great Recession, the rate of long-term unemployment has remained elevated.
The fact that the long-term unemployed still make up a significant portion of all unemployed individuals in America (as of October 2014 the percentage was 32 percent) suggests that structural factors are contributing to the struggles many Americans face when seeking stable employment, noted Gregory Acs of The Urban Institute.
“The most compelling evidence that the Great Recession contributed to fundamental shifts in the structure of the US economy leading to elevated levels of long-term unemployment comes from a comparison of the unemployment rate with job openings, or the vacancy rate,” Acs explained in an article for the Institute. Typically, high unemployment rates are accompanied by low job vacancy rates, indicating that there are not enough jobs to meet job seekers’ demands. Correspondingly, when job vacancies rise, unemployment should fall as job seekers fill these positions. However, after the Great Recession, both unemployment rates and job vacancy rates remained elevated, indicating that employers have jobs available, but are not choosing from the pool of available workers.
This article explores how people fall into the trap of long-term unemployment, and discusses how this issue has evolved over the past twenty years. It also describes the effects that long-term unemployment has on individuals, families, and society overall, and explains how people in helping professions such as social work and career counseling can help the long-term unemployed. Social workers can play an important role in helping long-term unemployed individuals, due to their unique training and ability to understand the interplay between social context, emotional health, and human behavior and resilience. This article explains how social workers can further prepare themselves to counsel and assist long-term unemployed clients. Finally, the article features a section with advice on how friends and family of long-term unemployed individuals can help them manage this challenge.
The Causes of Long-Term Unemployment
As with short-term unemployment, long-term unemployment does not have one specific cause, but is rather the result of multiple social, economic, and individual factors. Whether it is a round of layoffs or personal circumstances, the reasons people become unemployed vary. However, while the specific causes of long-term unemployment are still a matter of debate amongst experts, recent and compelling evidence has shown how a combination of employer discrimination and the emotional toll that unemployment has on an individual contributes significantly to the struggles that the long-term unemployed encounter when seeking jobs.
A 2012 study conducted by Dr. Rand Ghayad, PhD, and published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, discovered that employer discrimination plays a significant role in keeping the long-term unemployed from receiving fair consideration in the job market. For his study, Dr. Ghayad and his colleague William Dickens sent out about 4,800 fake resumes to actual job listings. These resumes all had identical credentials, except for the length of unemployment and level of industry experience. Dr. Ghayad found that the resumes that indicated a span of unemployment longer than 6 months received almost no responses. Additionally, he found that employers actually preferred short-term unemployed individuals with little to no industry experience over long-term unemployed individuals with relevant professional experience. These findings suggested that the time an individual has been unemployed took precedence over their actual qualifications for a job.
Dr. Ghayad’s study and its results align with the research and conclusions of Professor Ofer Sharone, PhD, who teaches at the MIT Sloan School of Management and who recently founded a pro-bono support center for the long-term unemployed called the Institute for Career Transitions (ICT). Through his own sociological research of long-term unemployed Americans, Professor Sharone found that the risk of falling into the trap of long-term unemployment is roughly the same for all individuals, regardless of their degree of education, once they have lost their job.
“We have data that shows that the likelihood of someone becoming long-term unemployed,once he or she is unemployed, does not differ greatly across education levels,” Professor Sharone noted in an interview with OnlineMSWPrograms.com, “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.” In other words, while individuals with higher levels of education are less likely to become unemployed, relative to those with less education, education is significantly less helpful in protecting an unemployed individual from long-term unemployment.
Dr. Ghayad’s and Professor Sharone’s findings are mirrored in the research of the Heldrich Center at Rutgers University. “There is a great deal of debate over the primary causes of persistent long-term unemployment in America–even as short-term unemployment has returned to pre-recession levels,” noted Rutgers Professor Dr. Carl Van Horn, PhD and Senior Researcher Maria Heidkamp, both of whom work at the Heldrich Center, in an interview with OnlineMSWPrograms.com.
“Economists have been debating the ‘skills gap’ theory, which would imply that those who are long term unemployed are lacking in specific skills employers are seeking, possibly because their skills have deteriorated after being unemployed 6 months, a year, two years, or longer,” Professor Van Horn and Ms. Heidkamp continued, “But the Heldrich Center’s nationally representative Work Trends surveys found that the long- and short-term unemployed look pretty similar in terms of their demographic background, including education. The long-term unemployed are represented in all age categories, educational levels, geographic regions, and income strata.”
The findings of Dr. Ghayad, Professor Sharone, Professor Van Horn, and Ms. Heidkamp, along with other scholars in this area, suggest that the long-term unemployed are at a very high risk of being pushed permanently out of the job market, and for reasons that are largely outside of their control.
The Emotional Toll
Another central yet long overlooked part of why long-term unemployment is such a challenge to overcome is the impact it has on an individual’s self-esteem and emotional well-being.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that basically nobody who faces this structural situation can come away unscathed,” Professor Sharone explained, “It’s a very specific situational context that creates emotional turmoil. […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.”
The constant rejections, which often lack any explanation, damage jobseekers’ confidence, and can cause them to doubt their qualifications. “The more it becomes about you in the application process […] 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,’” Professor Sharone continued. “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.”
In a cruel twist of cause and effect, the feelings of hopelessness, depression, and anxiety that the long-term unemployed feel can prevent them from putting their best foot forward even when an employer gives them an interview. “Unemployment, and especially long-term unemployment, can affect people’s spirit and sense of self,” noted career coach and licensed clinical social worker Mary Pender Greene in an interview with OnlineMSWPrograms.com. “[A]s a result, during interviews [long-term unemployed individuals] may be weary, depressed, and frustrated, and it comes across. They might feel desperate at times, and it shows in the interview.”
Long-term unemployed individuals’ emotional struggles can also make socializing and networking significantly harder, which only increases their risk of staying unemployed. “Another thing is that long-term unemployed individuals tend to be isolated,” Ms. Pender Greene noted, “Oftentimes they are depressed, frustrated, living on limited income, and often times they’re embarrassed. All of these things combined often mean that the person is on their own.”
The Effects of Long Term Unemployment
As mentioned previously, unemployed individuals are significantly more likely to experience heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness than their employed peers, and these mental health issues often intensify the longer a person is unemployed. In addition to these emotional consequences, long-term unemployment can have devastating effects on individuals’ quality of life, including their finances, relationships, and plans for the future.
The Urban Institute found that the long-term unemployed are almost five times more likely to suffer from poverty than employed workers (34.1 percent vs. 6.9 percent). Furthermore, according to the B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, families of the long-term unemployed experienced a staggering 40 percent reduction in income during the Great Recession. A 2014 survey conducted by the Heldrich Center and titled Left Behind: The Long-term Unemployed Struggle in an Improving Economy, found that 80 percent of long-term unemployed individuals surveyed experienced a negative change in their lifestyle during the Great Recession, and over half of these individuals described this change as a major upheaval. Sixty percent of the long-term unemployed participants in the Heldrich Center’s study also reported having strained relationships with friends and family as a result of their employment situation.
The impact of long-term unemployment also extends well beyond the person directly experiencing it. “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,” noted Professor Sharone to OnlineMSWPrograms.com. “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. […] So there is definitely an impact beyond the job seeker individually.”
The Social Impact: A Matter of Economics and Ethics
In addition to being incredibly harmful to jobseekers and their friends and family, long-term unemployment hurts the overall economy. Professor Van Horn and Ms. Maria Heidkamp explained, “The entire society is negatively affected by having prime-age workers (24 to 54 years of age) sidelined by long-term unemployment. It lowers the nation’s overall economic output and competitiveness. Moreover, the long-term unemployed are more likely to turn for help to already stressed social safety nets.”
Allowing long-term unemployment to persist prevents the American economy from reaching its full potential, because many long-term unemployed individuals are not only willing, but also qualified to work. The Economic Policy Institute found that long-term unemployment rates were elevated for people of all ages, levels of education, ethnic backgrounds, and industries. This discovery indicates that thousands of qualified workers who would otherwise be able to contribute to the U.S. economy are being pushed out due to employment prejudice and other larger, structural issues in American labor market that are outside of their control.
While the economic arguments for helping the long-term unemployed get back into the workforce are compelling, Professor Sharone urges people to also think of the moral implications of this persistent social issue. “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,” he told OnlineMSWPrograms.com. “[Such discrimination is] 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.”
Developing a Long-term Solution
Due to the complexity of the causes and effects of long-term unemployment, the solution to this stubborn social and economic issue will require a multi-faceted approach, and one that addresses the legal, social, and emotional barriers that the long-term unemployed face when trying to re-enter the job market.
Addressing Structural Barriers through Legislation
Long-term unemployment has been such a destructive and tenacious issue in the American economy. Such initiatives include incentives for companies in different industries to hire long-term unemployed applicants, programs to revamp hiring practices so that the long-term unemployed stand a fairer chance among other applicants, and funding for “Ready to Work” partnerships to prepare and place long-term unemployed in jobs. Since the implementation of these measures, the number of long-term unemployed decreased from 3.9 million in December 2013 to its current 2.9 million (as of October 2014).
Focused Support to Increase Resilience
Outside of governmental actions, some independent organizations, such as Professor Sharone’s Institute for Career Transitions, have focused on helping long-term unemployed individuals apply to jobs and maintain confidence and resilience in the face of professional rejections. For example, the ICT’s recent pilot program provided targeted career guidance and support to long-term unemployed job seekers in the Boston area. This project, which also served as a study to determine the most effective ways of providing support to the long-term unemployed, split a group of 102 middle aged, long-term unemployed job seekers into two groups. One group received free, individualized sessions with career counselors, while the other group received no career assistance.
At the end of three months, 30 percent of the individuals in the program who received career support succeeded in finding a full-time job or contract position lasting four months or longer, in contrast to 18 percent of the group who received no assistance. These numbers, while slightly encouraging, also illustrate the tough odds that the long-term unemployed face even with a strong support system.
The moderate successes described above are only indications that more work needs to be done at the individual, local community, state, and national levels to help long-term unemployed individuals get back on their feet and begin contributing again to the nation’s economy.
What Social Workers Can Do to Help the Long-term Unemployed
Social workers can play a powerful role in helping long-term unemployed individuals get back on their feet. Due to their training, “Social workers are likely to take a more holistic approach to the problem than typical employment counselors may be trained or have the resources to do,” noted Professor Van Horn and Ms. Heidkamp to OnlineMSWPrograms.com.
One of the central tenets of social work is to consider the individual client in the context of his or her social environment, and to use this understanding to provide effective support. As a result, social workers are typically prepared to help long-term unemployed individuals with some of the most challenging aspects of their situation. “I think social workers actually possess some of the most important tools already to support people who are long-term unemployed,” Professor Sharone told OnlineMSWPrograms.com. “[S]ocial 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.”
“The most important thing [social workers can do] is to help their clients recognize that unemployment can happen to anyone, and to address their sense of failure and embarrassment,” Mary Pender Greene explained. “The other thing too is to have clients think about whom they can talk to, where they can go, and what they can do outside of their coaching sessions, because a part of the big issue with people who are unemployed is the isolation.”
Ms. Pender Greene also noted that social workers can help their clients find free and low-cost career support services in their area: “There are places that one can go to get free or very low-cost resume writing help in most cities. Community colleges, some high schools, some continuing education programs, and certain community centers offer these services.”
Professor Van Horn and Ms. Heidkamp had similar advice for social workers seeking to help their unemployed clients. “Social workers can contribute by helping job seekers who are long-term unemployed learn about managing life transitions, including how to live with less money while they are unemployed and quite likely even after they find a new job,” they told OnlineMSWPrograms.com. “[Additionally, social workers] can help job seekers with strategies for how to cope with feeling stressed, anxious, desperate, and angry, […and] help them access other social services they may need for themselves and their families.”
How Social Workers Can Address Unemployed Clients’ Needs
Long-term unemployed individuals generally need to take a multi-faceted approach to successfully finding a job. Such an approach could include:
- Creating structure to their day, including a self-care plan
- Constructing an effective job search strategy
- Optimizing their job application materials
- Addressing any emotional or mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and/or hopelessness
- Seeking the support of friends, family, and their community
Social workers can help their long-term unemployed clients with each of the action items listed above by:
- Guiding them through the process of applying for unemployment benefits
- Providing emotional and mental health support
- Helping them develop a sound self-care plan
- Connecting them to unemployment and job search resources in their community
- Providing career and life transition advice
- Helping them set personal and professional goals, and helping them develop a daily, weekly, and monthly schedule for the achievement of these goals
A Concerted Effort
Professor Van Horn and Ms. Heidkamp also emphasized that social workers can join forces with other community service organizations to help unemployed individuals on a larger scale. “Social workers interested in helping the long-term unemployed can team up with public workforce system programs that are charged with helping these individuals,” they explained.
Professor Sharone noted that additional resources do exist for social workers who are interested in gaining more knowledge about and training in helping the long-term unemployed. “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,” he explained, “[T]he NCDA, or 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.”
Given the complex and stubborn nature of long-term unemployment, and the deep-rooted effects it has on its victims, collaboration between social workers, non-profit organizations, government departments, and the general population may be crucial in finally making an appreciable dent in America’s long-term unemployment levels.
How Friends and Family Can Help the Long-term Unemployed
Even individuals who are not formally trained in social work, career counseling, or other helping professions can help long-term unemployed friends and family through a combination of empathy and networking opportunities.
One way to support a long-term unemployed friend or family member is to show genuine interest in how they are doing, while avoiding giving direct advice, as such advice can sometimes be interpreted as a critique, recommends Professor Sharone. “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.”
Professor Sharone also highly recommends that friends and family of the long-term unemployed help connect them with professional contacts. “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.”
Individuals who want to take it a step further and help their long-term unemployed peers with job skill-building, resume refining, interview preparation, and other specifics of the job search may find that community centers, grassroots volunteer groups, churches, and synagogues may provide opportunities for such engagement, Professor Sharone noted. However, these community efforts have thus far been very “ad hoc,” and without a systematic and proven approach.
“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,” Professor Sharone continued. “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.”
- “27 Weeks and Counting: Long-Term Unemployment in America,” datatools.urban.org, The Urban Institute, Serena Lei, http://datatools.urban.org/features/longtermunemployment/index.html
- “Amid Long-Term Unemployment ‘Crisis,’ MIT Project Lifts Job Seekers,” wbur.org, 90.0 WBUR: Boston NPR News Station, 9 June 2014, Benjamin Swasey, http://www.wbur.org/2014/06/09/long-term-unemployed-mit-mass
- “Assessing the Factors Underlying Long-Term Unemployment during and after the Great Recession,” urban.org, The Urban Institute, July 2013, Gregory Acs, http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/412886-assessing-the-factors.pdf
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- “Left Behind: The Long-term Unemployed Struggle in an Improving Economy,” heldrich.rutgers.edu, The John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, September 2014, Carl Van Horn, PhD, Cliff Zukin, PhD, and Allison Zopicki, http://www.heldrich.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/products/uploads/Work_Trends_September_2014_0.pdf
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- “What Can We Learn by Disaggregating the Unemployment-Vacancy Relationship?” bostonfed.org, The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, October 2012, Rand Ghayad and William Dickens, http://www.bostonfed.org/economic/ppb/2012/ppb123.pdf