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For many, unemployment drags on and on

The Interview: Jo Anne Schneider, anthropologist

By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

October 30, 2011

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Jo Anne Schneider studies marginalized groups: refugees, the poor, people with disabilities — and, lately, Americans who have been unemployed for months and months, which includes a lot of people who never would have considered themselves on the fringe before.

"You've got this whole population of what was the stable middle class that is now out of work," said Schneider, a Catonsville anthropologist who is affiliated with George Washington University. in Washington, D.C. "The last time you saw that … was probably the '30s."

About 45 percent of Americans who are unemployed and looking for jobs have been on the hunt for more than six months, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That added up to more than 6 million people as of September.

Last month, the state said 58,000 Marylanders might be eligible for a federally funded extension of unemployment benefits because they had been out of work for more than a year and a half.

Schneider, 52, talked with The Baltimore Sun recently about the long-term unemployment problem, whether the highly educated are immune and why she thinks Maryland's efforts to help need retooling.

How long is long-term unemployment?

The government normally defines it as over six months unemployed. At this point, though, we've got people who have been unemployed over a year, over two years. At that point, it really gets very serious.

When you get beyond a year, people are pretty significantly dipping into whatever savings they had. They're probably getting discouraged. They're probably having a lot of trouble convincing people that their skills are current.

Is there a vicious cycle at work — the longer you're unemployed, the harder it is to get a job?

I think that's true. In fact, as I'm sure you know, there have been reports that employers are refusing to take applications from people who are unemployed.

Who are the long-term unemployed?

You've got a very large array of people. You've got anything from people with no education to people with Ph.D.s. … Increasingly, the population we need to pay attention to are those with either some college or college degrees. … The older middle-aged, people with college and above — anybody over 50, 55 — are having a real hard time.

Are older workers being hit harder than young workers just starting out?

Both of them are hit hard, but frankly, the older workers are hit hardest. What I've found is, if you look at the populations having trouble, it's anyone who is going to cost employers money. So older workers, who are more sensitive in terms of salary, … they presumably may use more health [insurance], their retirement may cost more. Younger workers are having a hard time getting in the door because they need training … and also they simply don't have the experience.

We always hear that education helps protect workers against unemployment. Is that no longer true?

It does and it doesn't. The thing I think is most important here is that all of the federal programs [to help the unemployed] are looking at either short-term training or associate's degrees. There's a lot of emphasis on associate's degrees. If you look at the population that's been consistently long-term unemployed through all of this, it's been those people with associate's degrees. So that's just not enough anymore.

For everybody else, it's really training for what — is your degree or is your training in the things that are actually hiring now?

There are so many people with significant education, experience, that are having trouble finding work. And proportionately, it's much higher than it was previously.

Is there a mismatch between the training workers have and available jobs?

I don't know that I would say that. At this point, there just aren't enough jobs. I'm sure that in some sectors, there's a mismatch. But frankly, there are lots of people out there with good skills, or skills that could be adapted for something else, but they're not being hired.

Is self-employment a viable option these days?

That's a very interesting problem. … Some people turn to self-employment, but less so in this recession than others, for two reasons. One is the economy is just bad. … But the thing that makes this recession different and is a real, real problem across the board is credit. If you're self-employed, you can't get credit from anybody. So you're not going to turn to that as an option because it means you can't get any personal credit, never mind any credit to start your personal business.

Your research touched on Maryland's workforce development effort, the "one-stop career center" system, which aims to put the unemployed back to work. Is that on target for these economic times?

It's not. And there are two reasons that it's not. The first one is that — and this isn't just Maryland, this is federal — there have been cuts and more cuts and more cuts to that workforce development system. And so at this point, the one-stops are essentially self-service. They do these little workshops, they theoretically have counselors, but there just aren't enough staff to help all of these people.

And the other thing, which is very clear — and this is again federal, it's not state, although I think state to a large extent echoes the federal [government] — is for years and years and years, all of the programs have [focused on] special populations, mostly those without high school or special training.

There really isn't much other than to tell people not to put all their experience on their resumes that these folks can do [for educated, older workers].

How could the workforce development system be changed to better help today's unemployed workers?

First of all, obviously, these programs need to be beefed up. If they're hiring, and they're hiring from among those folks who are unemployed professionals, that's helping.

Developing networks to peers who are employed [would also make sense]. That would involve really going out there and getting a cadre of volunteers — in fields where you've got a lot of unemployed people — who are employed, who are willing to help these people make connections to jobs that actually exist. That kind of peer-to-peer support, I think, is important.

It may also be providing incentives to employers to hire these folks — paying for their health insurance. It may be creating credit and a way to pool things for self-employment. Lots of things could be done.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/realestatewonk An earlier version of this story misstated Jo Anne Schneider's academic affiliation.

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