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Think the Long-Term Unemployed Have Lost Their Edge? Wrong

Job seekers at a job fair on March 28 in Washington.

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Job seekers at a job fair on March 28 in Washington.

Executives from more than 300 companies, including some of America’s largest employers, have promised the White House they they’ll do more to help the long-term unemployed.

“Folks who’ve been unemployed the longest often have the toughest time getting back to work,” President Obama noted. “It’s a cruel Catch-22: The longer you’re unemployed, the more unemployable you may seem.”

The numbers are sobering: Some 3.9 million Americans, or about 2.5 percent of the active workforce, had been unemployed for 27 or more weeks at the end of last year—and 2.6 million of them for at least a year, according to a White House briefing paper published in January.

The numbers haven’t budged much since then. At the end of February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of long-term unemployed workers still stood at 3.8 million—a tragedy by any standard.

While there are political and public relations components in virtually everything involving the interaction of Washington and corporate America, the companies involved in the new hiring initiative—which include Bank of America (BAC), Boeing (BA), EBay (EBAY), Ford (F), Marriott (MAR)McDonald’s (MCD) and Wal-Mart (WMT), will not only be doing right by these workers; they’ll be doing themselves a favor.

By giving the long-term unemployed a fair shot at job openings, they’re recognizing that many of these individuals are seasoned and successful workplace or military veterans. Companies that hire them will be expanding their talent pools.

What’s more, many of these people desperately want to work and will bring a strong work ethic to any new position. This is an important plus.

So the hiring initiative launched in January is not a simple act of kindness; it’s a wise business decision.

The conventional wisdom (more of a conventional falsehood) holds that somebody who’s been unemployed for six to eight months or more has lost his or her edge due to the rapid pace of technological change. Frankly, that’s a lot of bunk. In most industries, technology may be changing, but it’s not changing that much, that fast.

Besides, as the White House has pointed out, research shows that long-term unemployed workers have more education, on average, than short-term unemployed workers. Translation: If they need to be brought up to speed, it’s not a hopeless task; they have the smarts to learn.

When training is needed, a program in Chicago could serve as a model. Known as Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, the “train to hire” program matches unemployed job seekers with employers who have jobs to fill.

But it goes beyond that. Employers also provide prospective employees with training in the exact job skills they will need to be successful in their new positions. Look here for a recent case study, where a single company, Seaton, has filled 250 such positions, with the average new worker unemployed for 18 months.

The long-term unemployment problem is a serious one. If something isn’t done about it, many families—and our economy—will suffer lasting damage.

Harold L. Sirkin is a Chicago-based senior partner of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and co-author, most recently, of The U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance: How Shifting Global Economics Are Creating an American Comeback (Knowledge@Wharton, November 2012).

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