White House Reminds Firms Not To Overlook Long-Term Jobless

President Obama is asking a group of CEOs to pledge not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed. But new research suggests that these job seekers may face an even greater challenge — many of them are not even being considered by employers. Our Planet Money team looks into the research and challenges facing these job seekers.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's another item likely to be part of tonight's State of the Union address: helping the long term unemployed. The president is expected to announce that some of America's firms have signed a pledge not to discriminate against the long term unemployed when they're hiring. This week, the president plans to meet with many of the CEOs of those companies. NPR's Zoe Chace from our Planet Money team reports on the surprising experiment that, in part, lead to this meeting.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: A year after the financial crisis, September 2009, employers started posting jobs again. Rand Ghayad is an economist and he noticed that companies were hiring again, but he found something puzzling.

RAND GHAYAD: If you go on any job search website you'll find, like, hundreds of thousands of job vacancies, but at the same time unemployment continued to be above 9 percent at that time.

CHACE: Why weren't all these unemployed people getting hired by these companies who had open positions? Ghayad had a hunch and decided to run an experiment. He printed up a bunch of fake resumes...

GHAYAD: And I sent them to 600 job openings, real job openings around the United States.

CHACE: Some resumes had relevant job experience but showed that the applicant had been out of work for more than six months. Other resumes were without relevant job experience, but for people who'd been out of work for just a few weeks or months. Ghayad recorded who got called back for an interview.

GHAYAD: And it turns out that applicants with an unemployment duration of six months or more barely get any interviews, so it becomes nearly impossible for somebody who's long term unemployed to get an interview for a job.

CHACE: This bias against people who have been out of work for more than six months, it's very obvious to those people who have been out of work for more than six months.

ANITA WILLIAMS: After four years, it's looking like no - and it will only get worse because each year that I'm unemployed, not only am I unemployed longer, I'm also older, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44...

CHACE: Anita Williams has been looking for work for four years since she lost her software installation job in Colorado and she says her resume used to be in chronological order, showing her most recent date of employment. And...

WILLIAMS: No calls. No calls. No one's interested.

CHACE: So Anita Williams changed her resume, got called back, but that wasn't enough. She realized she had to be careful in these phone interviews not to date herself and accidently confess that she was over 40.

WILLIAMS: No Duran Duran, no Depeche Mode, no Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston...

CHACE: Whatever you do, don't mention stamps, she says, or balk at weird abbreviations.

WILLIAMS: So you'll be at an interview and someone will say FWIW.

CHACE: FWIW is something people say?

WILLIAMS: And that means for what it's worth.

CHACE: Wow.

WILLIAMS: It's little cues like that that will help.

CHACE: The pledge that's coming from the White House this week to encourage companies not to overlook the long term unemployed, it's coming a little late for Anita Williams. Three hundred applications later, she's got a new plan.

WILLIAMS: One of the things I'm looking at now, because I am in Colorado, is moving into the marijuana industry, because that's an area where, one, I can go in as an entrepreneur, and obviously it's going to be growing.

CHACE: Indeed. That's not a government fix to the problem exactly, but it could lower the unemployment rate a little bit. Ghayad, the economist who did the experiment, he will be at the White House on Friday when the CEOs announce their pledge not to overlook the long term unemployed. Zoe Chace, NPR News.

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