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The new minority: Millions of long-term unemployed looking for hope

Published: Monday, July 30 2012 9:53 p.m. MDT

A group of long-term-unemployed people meet at the Platform to Employment program that was developed by Joe Carbone in Bridgeport, Conn.

Platform to Employment, Roger Salls Photography

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Joe Carbone can't sleep — and the odd thing is, he deals in hope. Carbone is the President and CEO of The WorkPlace, Inc., a non-profit workforce and economic development organization in Bridgeport, Conn. He developed an experimental program to help the long-term unemployed that was recently featured on "60 Minutes."

But the problem of the long-term unemployed in America is so large it weighs on him. "I can't tell you what this issue of long-term unemployment has done to me," Carbone said.

In the economic downturn, the Federal government and some state governments have extended unemployment benefits beyond the standard 26 weeks — covering some people up to 99 weeks. But the way things currently stand, all extended benefits are set to expire at the end of 2012, putting everything back to a 26 week measure. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' June numbers has 5,370,000 people who have been unemployed 27 weeks or longer. The official unemployment rate is 8.2 percent, but if you add "discouraged workers" who have given up looking for a job, it jumps to 8.7 percent. "We are not talking about a small group of people," Carbone said. "I called it carnage on ('60 Minutes'). That's what it is."

And so Carbone set out to do something about it — developing a unique way to put the long-term unemployed at the top of the hiring pool by making the employers an offer they couldn't refuse.

DIFFERENT NEEDS

Justine tenZeldam and her husband lost their jobs in the San Fransisco area and went to live with her parents in Sacramento, Calif. Month after month, the lack of employment weighed down on her. "It wreaks havoc with self-esteem and confidence," she said.

She applied for various jobs. "But I got the line that I was over qualified for everything I was applying for," she said. "That can be equally discouraging. 'Just give me a job!' was what I was thinking."

But they didn't.

Her husband went back to school to become an art teacher. Eventually, she gave up. But not forever. For her, the fire came back six months later when people started suggesting she take a minimum wage job.

Carbone at The Workplace said part of the problem the long-term unemployed face is their needs change after six months — both emotionally and in their ability to get employers' interested.

But government helps for the unemployed don't recognize the needs of the long-term unemployed. Carbone said many special populations receive targeted help in employment, such as veterans, the disabled and so forth. "We treat the long-term unemployed no different than if people are out of work for three days," he said. "There are no added benefits or tools if you are out of work for three days or two years. ... That's wrong, and that's shortsighted."

STIGMA AND THE BUYER'S MARKET

How employers treat the long-term unemployed is different as well."You can post a job and have 300 applicants in 15 minutes," Carbone said. And, he said, with that many applicants it is easy to cut down the hiring pool to a more manageable level by excluding those who have been without jobs for a long time — like Frank O'Neill, an accountant in Connecticut who lost his job in 2008.

"The whole perception that people out of work are lazy or want to live off the system is wrong for the vast majority of people who are unemployed," O'Neill said. "I'll take a job over unemployment any day of the week. I just couldn't get one."

Some want ads say "unemployed need not apply." Although some states such as Oregon are banning ads that blatantly say this, there is a stigma that puts the long-term unemployed at the bottom of the hiring pool. "It's an actual form of discrimination that they face," Carbone said.

PLATFORM TO EMPLOYMENT

Carbone' plan was the development of a research project named "Platform to Employment" or "P2E" for short. He wanted to try "some extraordinarily different things" along with education and psychological support that addressed the standard needs of the long-term unemployed.

Career Team, a for-profit training provider, worked on the skills portion of the plan teaching five weeks of classes on how to use tools and services — such as networking. This helped the unemployed get up-to-date on how to search for a job.

The emotional part of the problem was helped by Behavioral Health Group, a for-profit company that provides employee assistance programs such as social services to deal with depression, family problems, substance abuse — anything that inhibits people from being successful in the workforce.

Carbone said the five-week program is intensive and challenging. "But there is no question that it worked," he said. "After five weeks in this program, these people were ready for job search."

But the truly innovative way the program works is in how the long-term unemployed actually get a chance.

THE OFFER THEY COULDN'T REFUSE

Carbone and his staff looked carefully at jobs openings in the region and tried to match program participants like O'Neill with trusted employers.

Then came that offer the potential employers couldn't ignore. P2E would pay the candidate's salary.

The employers were told P2E didn't just have a good job candidate, but that because they had a staffing entity in house, the potential employer did not have to hire the person outright. Instead, the employer could use the person for eight weeks — like a free intern. Four of those weeks, P2E would pay the entire salary. After four weeks, the employer would have to contribute up to 50 percent of the salary.

"What I'm really asking you to do," Carbone would tell them, "is to be fair, and honest with me. If you get to a point after eight weeks, or at any point, and they've done the job to your satisfaction, that you will hire them. But it is also a contract that you can break after one day. If they don't work out, and you don't want them, fine. No hard feelings."

What makes this different from government assistance programs such as those for the disabled and veterans is the employer is not required to make a hire to get the assistance. And private donors such as AARP, AT&T, several banks and foundations fund the program — so businesses don't have to be afraid of government regulations and control.

"It's an offer to business that they almost can't refuse," Carbone said. "It's totally free of risk."

And it works.

Out of 91 people who went through the program, so far, 66 were able to take the trial jobs. Of those 66, 61 have been hired full-time and one is still in the trial period. O'Neill the accountant was one of the first group of 20 people in the program. "I was skeptical," he said. "Nobody had ever gotten me a job before. I was always able to get my own positions. ... I'm thinking, 'If I can't get myself a job, why do I think these people can?'"

The program gave O'Neill his confidence back. He no longer felt alone.

All 61 who were hired are earning less than they did two or three years ago. "But they are no longer unemployed," Carbone said. "And they can begin the process to restructure their career and life from the standpoint of being employed."

NATIONAL HOPE

Carbone hopes the word will continue to spread about the program — and is excited about the publicity "60 Minutes" gave to it. Already he is seeing the potential transformation of his regional effort in Connecticut, with the help of some major foundations, into a national project in ten different metropolitan areas.

But for those people who do not have the program in their area — such as tenZeldam and her husband in California — Carbone said they should not give up hope.

"What we learn from the program is they need to confront their fears," Carbone said. "And they need to get themselves in a mode to be competitive."

This means boosting job hunting skills, filling in the areas where knowledge may have gone stale and addressing emotional issues. "And then go out and get a job," he said. "And don't look in terms of finding a job that is up to the credential level you think you have earned. Do not think in terms of what you made before. Right now, the most important thing you need to get done is get off of unemployment and onto employment. You cannot begin to rebuild your career unless you do it from a position of being employed."

Carbone doesn't mean to take any job, but consider jobs that they may never have considered during their working life — such as a part-time job or a position that is not up to their level. This isn't about earning money as much as it is about being on a platform where they can rebuild their life. "We need to do what we need to do to get to the ultimate destination," he said.

The new job is a way station.

Carbone understands what program participants feel like from his own experience years ago when he was out of work for more than eight months. He knows a person who is long-term unemployed may have some unique experience is relevant to the employer's needs. He also said an advantage to employers is they can bargain with the long-term unemployed because they have been out of work for a long time. If they will only give them a chance.

Justine tenZeldam was lucky. She didn't have the backing of a program like P2E, but was given a chance and found a great job as an account executive and social media manager at Tactical Telesolutions in San Francisco. Getting back into the game made the difference for her.

For Frank O'Neill, Carbone's program was a life saver. The day after the 8-week internship ended, he was offered full time employment at Cain Management, which runs more than 35 Dunkin' Donuts franchises in the Connecticut area.

But still, even with some success, Carbone doesn't sleep well. He sees the challenge of the millions of long-term unemployed as a moral challenge more than anything else. "We see millions of American workers that are drifting into the abyss," he said. "They are the sacrificial lambs. They are who we are giving up as we transition from the pre-recession economy to the post-recession economy. That is un-American. That is unjust. And that needs to be addressed."

And Carbone won't rest until it is.

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com TWITTER: @degroote FACEBOOK: facebook.com/madegroote

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