Long-Term Unemployed Seniors Face an Uphill Battle. How Can We Help?

long straight roadWe’ve discussed long-term unemployment on the blog before, including some of the myths that circulate around the notion. Essentially, after The Great Recession from 2007-2009, populations of the unemployed skyrocketed. In addition, the time in which the unemployed stayed unemployed rose as well, eventually reaching a median period of 25 weeks, more than twice the maximum since 1970.

The percentage of long-term unemployment has recovered in recent years, and statistics are nowhere near where they were in 2008. However, there’s a population of workers that seem to be stuck in the vicious cycle of long-term unemployment: these are workers who, after losing a job, are unable to find another position for a variety of reasons (geographical, lack of skills, etc.), and then face discrimination from potential employers because they’ve been unemployed for a long period of time.

The average age of long-term unemployed workers is skewed towards two age groups: those aged 25-44, and those who are 55 or older. Older workers are by far the larger group, and some, well into retirement age, are still seeking employment. (You can read the full results of this study on the demographics of the long-term unemployed here.)

Hence, one of the truly sad aspects of the LTU story is that this problem is particularly persistent for senior workers. According to Ofer Sharone, who conducted a study on ways to help the older long-term unemployed, nearly half of all unemployed workers over 55 become trapped in long-term unemployment, meaning that they’ve been searching for work for at least 27 weeks. Age contributes to case studies like Ken’s.

“Ken graduated from MIT with a degree in math, and for over 30 years had a very successful career as a software engineer. Three years ago, he was laid off—together with hundreds of other workers—following a merger. Ken began his search for a new position with much confidence given his in-demand skills. But since the layoff, Ken has depleted his retirement savings and last year, he was forced to sell his house. Today Ken works at a retail store in a position that pays a little above the minimum wage and makes no use of his skills.”

As advocates, we’re vitally aware of how useful Ken could be to a variety of manufacturers: There are jobs open for engineers, software engineers, mathematicians, and other skilled jobs that would fit his set of abilities. However, as an aging worker, there are several barriers that prevent him from finding a job. Studies show that older workers might find it more difficult, and less rewarding, to upgrade their skills and catch up with the innovation in technology necessary to work with an advanced manufacturer.

On the employer’s end, there are unfounded stereotypes that are more pervasive for older LTU than younger. The Star Tribune reports that businesses would often rather hire people with no experience than experienced workers who have been out of work a long time. Sometimes this is an unconscious bias, but it’s a bias nonetheless. Additionally, Sharone finds that employers fear that older workers won’t stick around in their jobs like younger workers will, or won’t have the same incentive to work as hard as a younger person would. Thus, age discrimination as well as discrimination based on term of unemployment can be catastrophic for senior citizens who were counting on the last few years of work to save for retirement.

LTU is not a problem that can’t be solved, and Nebraska’s government is certainly doing their part to stave off unemployment by matching skilled workers with appropriate jobs. In July of 2015, Governor Pete Ricketts announced an exciting new labor initiative that would provide one-on-one assistance for workers looking to transition off unemployment benefits, and into good jobs. The program focuses on high wage, high skill, and high demand jobs, and uses data to match employees with jobs according to skillset, thus removing some of the potential for age discrimination.

However, for a senior long-term unemployed worker, job seeking is certainly an uphill battle. In manufacturing, where workers are desperately needed, raising awareness of how valuable the senior LTU could be to the labor pool is an important step to take.

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