The base issue with long-term unemployment, and the job search, really just comes back to caring

Americans live in a very partisan world right now, so anyone deemed “a national emergency” — as long-term unemployment has been called — needs to be taken with a grain of salt, because what conservatives and what liberals deem as such are probably fairly far apart from each other. Whatever side of the aisle you may be on, though, long-term unemployment sucks — and the longer we go without solution, the bigger the problem gets. When a ‘slammed’ recruiter sees a resume with a 2-3 year gap since the last position, they screen it out (or the ATS does it for them). Why would you hire someone at 55 with a two-year gap when you can hire a 23 year-old and pay ’em less? The cycle continues and continues. Right now, there are about four million long-term unemployed — that’s the highest number since anytime before 2007. People are quick to point out that the number has actually dropped, but that’s not necessarily a good thing — that’s people simply giving up and not looking for work anymore, not people being hired into new gigs. Labor force participation in the U.S. is low, and getting lower.

I’ve written about my own issues with getting hired before, and I don’t want to turn this into a bitch-fest because I’m not even long-term unemployed; currently, I’m just a student (with no job lined up for about 3-4 months from now). The one connection my situation has to the broader problem in America — which is much more severe than what I deal with — is that ultimately, both stories come back to empathy. Let me explain, in numbered steps.

1. Getting a job in the modern era of ATS systems and online applications is basically equivalent to winning the lotto; anyone will tell you that, but that link will provide a lot of data on it. If you take a good year for Google — a year that it hires 4,000 people total, let’s say — then your chances of getting a job there, based on number of applications in a given year, are about 4/10 of 1 percent. Yea. Now… OK … that’s Google, which has a strong employer brand. On average, though, a corporate job gets about 250 completed applications for every opening. Did you run track in HS? Have you ever shown up at a massive track meet and realized you were essentially competing against 200 other people? Even if you were the best at your school or your county, could you really come in No. 1? Well, add 50 more people to that and then realize a track meet is just a physical test, whereas a job application process tests about six different things, and evaluate your odds. It’s tough.

2. Most studies and anecdotal discussions will tell you that the single-best way to get a job in the modern world is to be referred. (By the way, I’m predominantly talking about white-collar, mid-to-large-size jobs in America right now; if you’re reading this and by chance are a construction worker in Finland, obviously a lot of it doesn’t apply directly.) 40 percent of all hires right now are coming from employee referrals; you’ll find some articles with a rate closer to 80 percent. So, to get through the mud and the muck of the 250 per job applying, you need a connection, or “an in.”

3. The problem is — and I’ve seen this personally many times, and heard it from others — the people with jobs are, well, busy (because they have jobs and commitments therein). Even if the person is a close personal friend of yours or a family member, a number of things can happen: (a) they are too busy to get back to you and when they do, their response was cluttered and didn’t really address what you asked, (b) they get back quickly, but don’t know the right people to speak with or there aren’t any jobs open, (c) they refer you to a great connection but it doesn’t go anywhere, or (d) they really don’t care enough to do much. I’ve had all situations, A-D, happen to me in the past 2-3 months, from friends and family. It’s hard, but you just keep grinding.

4. This all goes back to broader ideas about human resources, and the hiring process, don’t really contain much empathy; it’s usually a machine/system screening you out on keywords, then a 15-minute phone screen that doesn’t accomplish a ton (I’ve been on probably 150+ in the last six months, and I’d estimate non-scientifically that 70 percent of them were done by people who had never glanced at my resume), and then an in-person interview with a hiring manager who is quite likely focused on meeting his/her immediate objectives and not really the ultimate value you might bring to the organization. Keyword screening and detachment: how America hires. Caring — about people, about the value they can bring, etc. — is largely absent from the process.

5. You see the same thing at the macro-level, honestly. Republicans tend to frame the long-term unemployment issue around the presence of unemployment benefits, even though repeated studies have shown that those benefits don’t encourage loafing, they encourage people to actually keep trying. Interestingly, though, John Thune — a Republican — has a decent plan to help the long-term unemployed, in part by appealing to the base interests of the companies themselves: a six-month payroll tax holiday when they hire a long-term unemployed worker. If you maintain unemployment benefits out to 18-24 months, add the payroll tax incentive, and work with housing owners in lower-income/gentrifying areas to provide affordable options near worksites/offices, there could be some changes here. But again, it all goes back to empathy and caring: you can set up a ton of policies around this, but if a mid-level in HR is still screening people out via the ATS, nothing will ultimately change.

6. Maybe the bigger issue here goes back to something I’ve talked about in a few other posts: ultimately, the responsibility of sourcing and hiring goes back through HR. Problem is, senior-level revenue-facing managers tend to view HR as personnel/admin/office cop (“help me fire this person”) and not a strategic partner, so the idea of hiring — which is basically how you build your team — isn’t constituted as strategic, which is, er, a major failure of how companies are structured and politicized. The broad irony is that a lot of people call HR “social work with a better salary” and it’s one of the major professions where women outnumber men, so you would think/assume that empathy runs rampant in the space, but … it doesn’t.

7. It’s a two-tiered problem in general: how America hires and how America’s government backs up hiring and job searches with policies. Is it going to end soon? Probably not. Will it end for me personally? Good Lord, I hope so.

Ted Bauer