ABC: Long-term unemployed "the new Irish"

Earlier today, I noted that the level of civilian participation in the workforce has reached a generational low of 64.2% the last two months, the lowest seen since March 1984.  ABC’s look at the job market suggests that it will be a long while before that rate rises significantly.  Hearkening back to an era of bigotry, Alan Farnham says the long-term unemployed have become “the new Irish“:

In the bad old days of the 1800s, when it was legal for employers to discriminate against anyone they pleased, job postings used to say things like: “No Irish Need Apply.” Now the unemployed, it seems, have become the new Irish: In advertisement after advertisement, employers come right out and tell them they’re not wanted.

Right now CareerBuilder, one of the biggest job sites on the web, has a posting for an entry-level engineer. The candidate, it says, will perform structural analysis of telecommunications cell towers. A civil engineering degree is required, an undergrad GPA of at least 3.4 as is knowledge of AutoCAD. Some travel is required.

Oh, and there’s one other thing: “No layoff candidates.” …

Look anywhere that jobs are posted and you’ll see more examples. This discrimination isn’t subtle. It’s not covert. It’s right out in the open, stated in the listings: A phone manufacturer looking to fill a marketing job stipulates “No unemployed candidates will be considered at all.” An electronics firm looking for an engineer says it will “Not consider/review anyone NOT currently employed regardless of the reason.” A Craigslist posting for an assistant restaurant manager in New Jersey says all applicants “Must be currently employed.”

So prevalent is this new form of discrimination that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in February held hearings on it. The EEOC press release announcing them bore the catchy title “Out of Work? Out of Luck.”

The analogy is far from perfect, mainly because Farnham confuses discrimination based on ethnicity and the normal discernment of employers based on experience and job history.  As a hiring manager for 15 years, I can attest that under normal conditions, the long-term unemployed are higher risks for problems in employment and for long-term performance.  That is one of many factors that came into play when looking for new hires, but at both companies for which I ran call centers, it was considered an important factor.  When exceptions were made, we usually had trouble with performance as a result.

That period of time differs from the current work environment in a couple of key ways that impact on this trend.  During my years as a hiring manager, unemployment never got above 7.8%, and most of that period stayed in the 5% range.  Under those conditions, finding stable employment histories for entry-level applicants was difficult, and we had to take more risks to keep staffing at appropriate levels.  Indeed, we also had to significantly raise entry-level pay several times over the last ten years in which I worked in that field just to get applicants in the door.

That meant that applicants with spotty work histories were more suspect, since employment was easily found in that period.  However, it also means that employers now have a much wider applicant base and can afford to be more selective.  With so many new workers entering into the economy and not enough jobs to go around, it has become a buyer’s market, which means that employers don’t need to take risks in staffing decisions.  While employment track records may be less indicative over the last three years of high unemployment, it’s still an issue that raises red flags about commitment and performance.

Eventually, the economy will recover enough to drive the available labor base down to a level where employers will have to take risks again, and the long-term unemployed will find opportunities at that point.  Fortunately for them, they can stop being risks in that area far easier than the Irish could stop being Irish, blacks could stop being black, or women could stop being women.

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