A Solution To Long-Term Unemployment?

platform to employment long-term unemployedBy Alan Farnham

Long-term unemployment: "The invisible problem," Joe Carbone calls it, because so many of the 6 million workers affected are too ashamed or too despondent to talk about it:

Six million Americans -- many of them older -- have been out of work so long (two years or more) that they have exhausted all their unemployment benefits. Many have depleted their savings. Yet they have little hope of landing a job, partly because employers discriminate against them.

Carbone thinks he's found a solution to their problem: P2E. Carbone is CEO of The Workplace, a work force development program in Connecticut that serves the needs of employers and job-seekers alike. Two years ago, under Carbone's leadership, it came up with "Platform to Employment," or P2E, a five-week, find-a-job program tailored to the older, long-term unemployed.

The total number of graduates so far is small-only 131. But P2E's record of success is so impressive -- 87 percent of graduates have found full-time work-that a consortium of employers, philanthropies and interest groups, including AARP, Walmart and Citigroup, now is poised to clone P2E and roll it out across 10 cities.

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The first clone opened in Dallas two weeks ago. The second will open Monday in Cincinnati. After that, additional offices will open at the rate of one a month in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami and other cities.

During each five-week program, 20 people at a time are coached on such skills as public speaking and self-presentation. Therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists help promote self esteem and self confidence. Financial counselors help the participants to repair their credit ratings and get their finances in order. "A wholistic approach," Carbone calls it. Finally, P2E helps match graduates with job openings.

The cost per student runs about $6,000, says Carbone, with the money coming mostly from donations. The amount includes a subsidy that allows a potential employer to "test drive" a graduate at no cost: During the test period, P2E is paying the graduate's salary, not the potential employer. The expectation is that somebody who performs well and meets expectations will then be offered a full-time job on the employer's payroll. This approach, says Carbone, has opened doors for an older, long-term unemployed candidate.

The addition of each new P2E center Carbone views not just as an opportunity to put people to work but an opportunity to educate employers and the public about the depth of the plight of the long-term unemployed. Carbone says he never ceases to be amazed how many people don't know that the problem exists.

"Some of the smartest people I know act surprised," he says. The long-term unemployed have no advocacy group to speak for them. They come from every walk of life. "They're disconnected." And their hopes have been beaten down so long that many must contend with depression or other forms of mental illness. In round-table sessions with program participants, says Carbone, it's not unusual to hear people say that they've considered suicide.

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"The one thing they have in common," he says, "is a sense of hopelessness."

Some have no idea what hit them. "Most have been through other recessions, where, when recovery came, you went back to work for the boss who'd laid you off." This recession hasn't fit that model. Unemployment benefits were extended, then extended again and again. "They waited too long," Carbone says of his students. "It wasn't their fault." But they awoke one day to find themselves viewed by potential employers as lazy or out of touch or as equipped with skills that now are out of date.

"It's a terrible thing to get up every day and realize your chances of ever being able to restore your footing in the labor market are getting shakier and shakier," Carbone says. "You actually see ads that say: Long-term unemployed need not apply."

The problem that they pose, he thinks, is a moral one.

"We as a country can decide not to take any positive action to help them," he says. "But in doing so, we are complicit in their being severed from one of the most basic rights of being an American: opportunity. Every day they're unemployed and the workforce does not provide them with the tools and services they need to compete they will grow more dependent on entitlement programs, become increasingly more hopeless."

Their sheer numbers make them bigger than almost any another "special population" in need. What's the difference, he asks, between their plight and the plight of folks who lose their homes to a natural disaster? If the federal government tells disaster victims, "We're going to do whatever it takes you get you back on your feet," why not say the same for the older unemployed?

The public, he says, is going to have to pay one way or the other-either $6,000 upfront, through a program like P2E, to help them find their way back to being self-supporting taxpayers; or, on the back end, at a far greater cost when they turn for survival to whatever may remain of the social safety net.

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