Can Anything Help The Long-Term Unemployed?

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Going into the new year, the national unemployment rate stands at 7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means the figure is the lowest it's been since 2008. But the welcoming of 2014 is hardly good news for one set of workers -- the long-term unemployed. For the first time since the financial crisis began half a decade ago, Congress has passed on extending emergency insurance benefits for those who have been out of work for up to 99 weeks. The program was left out of the bipartisan budget deal agreed to this month, as the Washington Post reported. The benefits are set to expire this weekend.

That means an estimated 1.3 million workers will be left in the cold, as the Post also reported. (In total, there are an estimated 4 million long-term unemployed workers in America, as AOL Jobs has reported.) Democratic party leaders say they intend to take up the issue again in January, but even if they push through a new extension there's guaranteed to be at least a delay in the delivery of checks.

Amid the political gridlock, a team of economists based out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led by sociologist Ofer Sharone has announced plans to try to crack the long-term unemployment puzzle. The project, entitled the Institute for Career Transitions, is starting with 130 long-term unemployed, many of whom previously held white collar positions. All are 45 years and older, which means they also have to confront age discrimination.

"Skills aren't the obstacle for most of the long-term unemployed. Screening by employers is," Rand Ghayad, a labor economist affiliated with Northeastern University in Boston, and a member of Sharone's research team, told Ghayad has independently pioneered research into the subject and told AOL Jobs that qualified workers out of work for more than six months are about three times less likely to be called back for an interview as compared to less qualified workers more recently out of work.

Cracking the code
"A big part of our research," Ghayad said, "will be identifying which variables matter most to finding work." He said the research team will be taking a particularly close look at the importance of networking and how close contacts can trump the stigma of long-term unemployment.

And so the MIT team has invited 63 career-coaches to work with the unemployed workers to see which strategies prove most helpful in trying to combat the bias in the labor market. The area of research is in fact a novel one, according to Sharone.

"The question is whether job-search strategies can make a meaningful difference against that discrimination. That's never been tested before," Sharone told the local news site.

Because the MIT project is only a month old it's too early to glean any major takeaways for the long-term unemployed trying to return to the workforce, Ghayad told AOL Jobs. But given that employers are overwhelmed by the number of applications they receive, Ghalad said they react by what he calls "free-riding on each other." In other words, employers automatically conclude something must be wrong with a worker if he or she has been out of work for more than six months, and so the worker is left in a permanent employment no man's land.

Some localities, including New York City, have responded by banning discrimination against the long-term unemployed. While the ban proscribes employers from explicitly asking for currently employed job applicants, it remains difficult to enforce, Ghayad notes.

"Workers have nothing to prove they're being discriminated against," he told AOL Jobs.

And so until more jobs are created and employers don't have the luxury to only pick from the front of their lines, it's integral for workers "not to wait," he said. "Take any job, volunteer, work part-time do something outside your profession," he warned. "Just make sure there's no gap on your resume."

What do you think should be done for the long-term unemployed? Share your comments below.

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