Using every option to help the long-term unemployed

America’s economic polar vortex, the Great Recession, has finally subsided. Unemployment and job creation numbers, for the most part, are heading in the right direction. But there has been no such warming trend for the four million Americans who rank among our long-term unemployed. These workers have been left out in the cold.

Congress, unfortunately, has not offered them much shelter. Besides failing to extend Emergency Unemployment Compensation last month, legislators also allowed Trade Adjustment Assistance for laid-off manufacturing workers to expire. And while the recent budget deal will lessen sequester cuts to workforce programs, we are still going to invest less in retraining the unemployed in 2014 than we did last year, and $500 million less (in current dollars) than back in 2007 when unemployment was 4.8 percent.

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In his State of the Union address, President Obama will likely call on Congress to bring new assistance to the long-term unemployed, and he has already previewed his plans to convene the business community to talk about its role as well. But as public- and private-sector leaders put their heads together on this issue, we need to be careful that the strategies developed are not misinformed by simplistic notions of the long-term unemployed or of the employers who might hire them. 

The long-term unemployed are as diverse as America. Some have college degrees and decades of professional work experience but have been out of work for so long that employers do not give their applications a second look. Others lack the specific skills needed for the technical jobs employers currently cannot fill. In fact, more than half of the long-term unemployed have little more than a high school degree. A recent international study confirms that the U.S. adult workforce has one of the lowest levels of reading and math skills in the industrialized world.  Nearly 40 million U.S. workers who might need to re-train for a new job likely do not have the basic skills to take their first community college course.   

So, for those who already have the skills but have been out of work for an extended period of time, we need to make sure they get a chance to interview and help them better convey what skills they have. For those who need more training, we need to reverse recent trends in federal disinvestment and make sure every dollar spent on their education goes toward training with a real job waiting on the other end.

In both cases, we will need to see employers as partners in this national endeavor. But we must stop thinking of the business community as a monolith. The president has already noted his plans to talk to corporate CEOs about the role their firms can play in hiring more of the long-term unemployed. Hopefully smaller employers, who do most of the hiring in this country, will also be seen as partners in this national effort.

Already, many small businesses have joined together in regional efforts to develop shared recruitment and training strategies to fill local skills gaps and accelerate hiring. These sector partnerships bring together multiple firms within the same industry along with local colleges, training providers and community-based organizations to align training and support services with the skills needed for in-demand jobs.  

With the right support from Washington, we could be creating such industry-based partnerships throughout the country, helping the long-term unemployed and marginally employed alike find pathways to new careers while helping local businesses grow. And that support could come soon. President Obama’s new Secretaries of Labor and Commerce have expressed interest in these industry-based partnerships, and there is bipartisan support for them in Congress as well.

It is time to bring these workers out of the cold. A variety of businesses are ready to be a part of the solution. Colleges, training providers, workforce boards and community groups are ready as well. I look forward to hearing President Obama’s solutions to this national tragedy. Hopefully Congress will join him.

Van Kleunen, executive director for National Skills Coalition, is a recognized expert on state and federal workforce policy.

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