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15 April 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 2:17pm

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

How no job leads to no job.

By Alex Hern

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:

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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.