It's not a tautology: the clearest barrier to employment is unemployment

How no job leads to no job.

The essay from Tony Blair in our our Centenary issue ends with seven questions which he says the modern Labour party must answer. Our editor, Jason Cowley, gave a go at answering some, but one in particular bears highlighting. Blair asks:

How do we improve the skillset of those who are unemployed when the shortage of skills is the clearest barrier to employment?

But that question is actually based on a false premise . Shortage of skills is not the clearest barrier to employment – lack of employment is.

It sounds tautological, but persistent research shows that businesses are wary to hire people who are unemployed, instead preferring to poach employees from other companies. The effect also hits hard if you have a sizeable gap in your CV; young people are routinely advised to claim they took a "gap year" to cover up such periods of unemployment, but that only goes so far.

That's bad enough if you quit your job before immediately starting work, but it gets worse still if you've been out of work for a long period of time. New research by Rand Ghayad, reported by Matt O'Brien at the Atlantic, reveals just how much worse:

In a new working paper, he sent out 4800 fictitious resumes to 600 job openings, with 3600 of them for fake unemployed people. Among those 3600, he varied how long they'd been out of work, how often they'd switched jobs, and whether they had any industry experience. Everything else was kept constant. The mocked-up resumes were all male, all had randomly-selected (and racially ambiguous) names, and all had similar education backgrounds. The question was which of them would get callbacks…
As long as you've been out of work for less than six months, you can get called back even if you don't have experience. But after you've been out of work for six months, it doesn't matter what experience you have. Quite literally. There's only a 2.12 percentage point difference in callback rates for the long-term unemployed with or without industry experience. That's compared to a 7.13 and 8.95 percentage point difference for the short-and-medium-term unemployed. This is what screening out the long-term unemployed looks like. In other words, the first thing employers look at is how long you've been out of work, and that's the only thing they look at if it's been six months or longer.

If someone's been out of work for more than six months, upskilling isn't going to help them. They are relegated to the same pile as the unskilled applicants purely by virtue of their unemployment.

The terrible thing is, employers are probably acting rationally here. The attitude that "there must be something wrong with them" will sometimes be right – and if it isn't, well, there's always enough capable applications who aren't long-term unemployed to easily fill any positions.

There may not be any easy solutions, either. Just as upskilling doesn't do much, it's not clear that work experience would either. We don't know what employers are selecting for, but if it is the "there must be something wrong with them" attitude, then being given unpaid experience won't help.

But O'Brien suggests one possible policy:

It's time for the government to start hiring the long-term unemployed. Or, at the least, start giving employers tax incentives to hire the long-term unemployed. The worst possible outcome for all of us is if the long-term unemployed become unemployable. That would permanently reduce our productive capacity.

Whatever happens, people who have been unemployed for a long time need work now, and they need help getting it. It's not a personal failing, it's a social one.

A protestor holds a sign during a demonstration against unemployment benefit cuts on July 11, 2012 in Oakland, California. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.