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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Scott Simon. The latest government figures show moderate but steady job growth in December. But these gains don't mean the same thing for everyone out of work. For the millions of people still struggling with long-term unemployment, the outlook has not improved very much. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, getting these workers back into the workforce is going to take a lot longer.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: When you're the first person in your family to finish college after growing up in one of the roughest sections of Brooklyn, you kind of expect things to happen for you. But Alecia Warthen has spent the last eight months learning to swallow her pride. She had earned an accounting degree and worked as a bookkeeper the last decade. Then she lost her job with the City of New York last April. And now she's telling local grocery stores she'll do anything - mop floors, stock shelves, bag groceries - anything, for a job. This morning, we're at FoodTown in the Bronx.

ALECIA WARTHEN: Hey, I just came because I put in an application a few weeks back, to see what type of jobs that you had open 'cause I'm looking for work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They just closed one of my other FoodTown stores, and we're absorbing their help right now. So, I have nothing open right now.

WARTHEN: Oh. OK, then.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK?

WARTHEN: All right. Thanks a lot. I appreciate that. This is sad. This is so sad. Let's go. I'm going back home.

CHANG: Warthen says she's applied for more than a hundred jobs since her lay-off and gotten only four interviews so far. She's tried making clothes to sell and even peddled homemade body lotions. But nothing's helped. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Warthen, who's 43, is used to taking care of her own problems. She raised six kids as a single mom and always had a job. Now, she and the three children who are still in the house are living on food stamps and $400 a week in unemployment insurance.

WARTHEN: I've always tried to aim high for myself, instill the same values in my kids and stuff. And just to think that everything has come down to this, it's like, make you feel like you just went to school for nothing, for nothing.

CHANG: Warthen is one of roughly five million people who are what they call the long-term unemployed - people who've been out of work for at least a half year. So many jobless workers fall into this category, it's skewed the numbers. Now, the average period a person in the U.S. stays unemployed is about 40 weeks. And it's been that way for a year and a half. So, even though the unemployment rate is coming down, the length of time people remain unemployed continues to be pretty high. John Silvia is the chief economist at Wells Fargo.

JOHN SILVIA: Remember, prior to 2007, this average duration was more like 20 weeks, not 40 weeks. So, we're dealing with a very, very different kind of labor market than we did prior to 2007.

CHANG: Silvia says there are expanding sectors in this new labor market, like health care and education. But he says the main reason people are staying unemployed is a skill set gap. Those growing sectors need skills many long-term unemployed people just don't have, especially those in their 40s and 50s. And the longer someone remains unemployed, the more she'll be perceived as a person without the right skill set. That's what Bonny Williams has seen. He helps run New York Staffing Services, a job placement center in Manhattan.

BONNY WILLIAMS: It does look undesirable because from an employer perspective, they're looking that this person has to be retrained to get up to speed for what we're looking for. So, they'd rather spend the time with someone who's just coming off an assignment because they're looking as though they're job-ready versus someone who may have been a bit stale being out of work for some time.

CHANG: So, Williams says even though he is placing more workers these days, the people first in line to get the new jobs are the ones who've been out of work the shortest time. That means prospects continue to be dim for people like Alecia Warthen. She's already started to pull money out of both her life insurance policy and retirement account. And to save on electricity now, her house goes pitch black every night before 11 o'clock. Ailsa Chang, NPR News.

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