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Long-Term Job Losses Demand Large-Scale Fix


While the national unemployment rate of 10.2 percent is a sobering reminder of the depth of this recession and the protracted timeline a recovery will take, the challenges posed by long-term unemployment are far greater.

“We are breaking every record post-Great Depression on long-term unemployment,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute. Right now, around 35 percent of those without jobs have been unemployed for more than six months, a figure that adds up to 3.6 percent of our country’s labor pool.

[Economy]The result is a crisis unlike anything seen since the 1930s. “The numbers are unprecedented,” said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a human resources consulting firm. “What it suggests and it bears out in reality is that as people become long-term unemployed, they become damaged goods in the job market.”

While economists are divided about the best way to combat this growing problem, most agree on how it happened. The current recession exacerbated an ongoing economic shift from manufacturing to a service base. Troubles faced by Detroit’s Big Three automakers fanned the flames, rendering the skills of many workers obsolete. Even as local economies withered on the vine, workers were rendered immobile, locked into their homes by the real estate crash.

Long-term unemployment is dangerous because it can have a snowball effect, says Kevin Lowden, managing economist at the Milken Institute. The longer someone is out of work, the more likely he or she is to default on his or her mortgage, even low-risk borrowers at the time when the loan was originated.

“You also see significant issues in terms of the effect on consumer demand due to the dramatic increase in savings rate,” he said. While this increase in savings is good for the economy long-term, right now that frugality comes at the expense of consumer spending that could lead to employers hiring more workers.

This epidemic of long-term unemployment also puts an added burden on government coffers. “This is direct drain on budgets in two ways,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Government doesn’t collect income tax on laid-off employees, and when these workers go onto unemployment or disability rolls, this creates an additional drain on the system.

For instance, the increase in workers applying for disability has shot up. Currently, some 7 million adults are on disability, an influx so overwhelming that the trustees of the Social Security program predict that the disability fund will be emptied by 2017 if nothing changes.

This mass migration to disability status is primarily a function of our employer-based health care system, according to Lawrence Katz, a professor at Harvard University. “If you have a pre-existing condition, even if you get another job there will be problems with your coverage,” he said. “The one place you can go is disability, where you get onto Medicare. And once they go on, they basically never come off.” Health plans currently under debate in Congress would subsidize low-income citizens and families, which would include the unemployed, as well as ban insurers from eliminating pre-existing conditions, which make going off disability feasible. Currently, those jobless for a long period of time have nothing to fall back on after their COBRA benefit expires.

Even if those who have been unemployed long-term make it back into the workforce, their future earning power suffers. There’s some evidence that post-layoff retraining can mitigate this, but only under certain circumstances. A study out of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies found that attending one year of community college gave displaced workers a 5 percent wage boost. Unfortunately, the vast majority of workers enrolled in such programs don’t stick around for even a semester, let alone a whole year.

However, for workers that stick it out and specialize in vocational training, science or mathematics, the returns can be even greater. The study’s authors found a 10 to 15 percent jump in wages for this subset of workers, as well as higher returns for those who already had some degree of college education prior to their participation in the program.

To this end, much of the work that is being done to combat long-term unemployment focuses on retraining workers so that their skills are more in alignment with today’s service-based economy. “The economy has changed fundamentally and our workforce system has not,” said Andy Levin, Michigan’s chief workforce officer, who runs that state’s No Worker Left Behind program. “Most people who lose their jobs can’t replace their standard of living without getting significant training because of the rapid and ongoing march of technology and globalization,” Levin said.

No Worker Left Behind began operating in August 2007 and is funded primarily by the Workforce Investment Act, which was created in the 90s and received $1.25 billion in stimulus funding to help dislocated workers. Since then, No Worker Left Behind has trained 102,000 at-risk or jobless Michigan residents for jobs in growing industries like health care, technology and transportation.

Levin has put into place bureaucratic efficiencies, such as standardizing which types of jobs are eligible for training subsidies throughout the state and streamlining the process that lets jobless workers continue to receive unemployment benefits while pursuing additional education. When the program conducted a survey this April, they found that nearly half of the workers who had completed training had landed a job, 86 percent in a field that related to their training.

Other economists say that programs such as No Worker Left Behind, while helpful, don’t do enough to address the root of the problem: the overwhelming lack of jobs. Although the pace at which companies are laying off workers has slowed, companies aren’t rehiring, which means there are still too few jobs to go around. Traditionally, small businesses are the first to hire when the economy picks up steam after a recession; however, small-business financing has dried up due to the credit crunch, preventing entrepreneurs from expanding and adding employees.

“The crisis is just so big at this point with 10.2 percent unemployment that we’re thinking about new direct job creation proposals because the scale of the problem is so large,” said Allegra Baider, senior legislative associate at the Center for Community Change. That group, along with a host of other advocacy and labor organizations, recently released a joint statement calling for new investment in job creation in fields such as infrastructure and education.

“A top priority ahead of job training is we’ve got to fix the labor market and start generating jobs,” said the Economic Policy Institute’s Heidi Shierholz. The Obama administration plans to hold a jobs summit next month examining incentives like tax credits to encourage businesses to hire new workers.

John Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas acknowledged that even if such programs succeed, many Americans will have to make adjustments. “One of the things that’s happening is a steady career at one large company or in a company town is no longer available, and people at all levels can no longer think of their careers as always progressing upwards in income.” Even as they learn new skills, employees also have to be taught how to be flexible so they can adapt to the twists and turns of the 21st-century economy.

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