Workforce Development

The Challenge of Expanding Employment Opportunities for the Unemployed

April 3, 2014

The nation’s economy is slowly recovering from the Great Recession. Economic activity is growing modestly and the labor numbers — both job creation and unemployment — are gradually moving in the right direction. However, Americans who have been out of work for more than six months are not seeing much relief in the economic recovery. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are approximately 3.8 million long-term unemployed Americans (jobless for 27 weeks or more). 

Indeed, even as short-term unemployment levels return to pre-recession levels, the long-term unemployed face a range of challenges:

  • They are sometimes stigmatized by hiring managers
  • Their skills may not be in industries or occupations that are hiring 
  • The economic dislocations stemming from long-term unemployment mean that instability in housing, transportation, and childcare can impede the job search process itself

One source of hope for unemployed Americans comes from a group of forward-thinking employers who have pledged to help provide opportunities for the long-term unemployed. They are ensuring that hiring processes do not disadvantage the long-term unemployed, and they are partnering with nonprofit and governmental agencies to promote hiring of the long-term unemployed. Over 300 employers have pledged to use these best practices to enhance economic opportunity for Americans who are out of work. 

Additional help is coming as part of the Ready to Work grants recently announced by the Department of Labor. These grants will support training and job placement efforts, including on-the-job training and paid work-experience designed to provide paychecks to the long-term unemployed as quickly as possible. The Ready to Work grants will support partnerships between community colleges, workforce investment boards, faith-based organizations, businesses, business associations, community-based training centers, and others to help train, support, and place long-term unemployed workers. The Department of Labor has announced plans to use $150 million to fund 20 to 30 such partnerships nationwide. And employers will be critical to developing successful grant proposals. Community colleges and workforce agencies will need to work closely with employers to identify employment opportunities, design relevant training and work experience programs, and refer successful job applicants. Working to equip prospective Ready to Work grantees for this effort, Skills for America’s Future has developed a set of resources to guide applicants in creating effective partnerships with employers.

In a recent survey by College for America, 85 percent of employers said they had trouble finding well-qualified applicants for jobs. The Ready to Work grants provide a unique opportunity to put Americans back to work and develop a skilled source of workers for business. While the Ready to Work grants will only go to a handful of regions, the process of bringing together employers, community colleges, and workforce agencies, and others should spur the work to address the challenge of long-term unemployment, whether or not a grant is ultimately awarded. 

John Colborn is director of the Aspen Institute Skills for America’s Future initiative.