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Erick Varela, a combat infantryman in Iraq who ended up homeless, said a PG&E apprenticeship program “gave me a sense of direction.”

Carolyn Kaster • Associated Press,

Long-term jobless will get new help

  • Article by: PETER BAKER
  • New York Times
  • January 31, 2014 - 11:47 PM

 

– President Obama has persuaded some of the nation's largest companies, including Wal-Mart, Apple, General Motors and Ford, to revamp their hiring practices to avoid discriminating against applicants who have been out of work for a long stretch of time.

Obama hosted a group of corporate chief executives at the White House on Friday to highlight those efforts and the use of presidential persuasion to help the jobless find work. In all, White House officials said, about 300 businesses have agreed to new hiring policies, including 21 of the nation's 50 largest companies and 47 of the top 200. At least two large Minnesota companies — Best Buy and U.S. Bancorp — have agreed to the changes.

“Folks who've been unemployed the longest often have the toughest time getting back to work,” Obama said at the White House event. “It's a cruel catch-22: The longer you're unemployed, the more unemployable you may seem. Now this is an illusion, but it's one that, unfortunately, we know statistically is happening out there.”

Those out of work for longer stretches, he said, are just as educated and experienced as newly unemployed.

“Just because you've been out of work for a while does not mean that you are not a hard worker,” Obama said. It “just means you had bad luck or you were in the wrong industry or you lived in a region of the country that's catching up a little slower than others in the recovery.”

‘Restored purpose to my life’

He added, “They just need employers to realize it doesn't reflect at all on their abilities or their values. It just means they've been dealing with the aftermath of this really tough job market and all they need is a fair shot.”

To illustrate the point, the White House had Obama be introduced by a formerly jobless veteran who eventually found work with the help of a training program. Erick Varela, a former U.S. Army combat infantryman, returned to California in 2008 and had trouble finding a job for which he was qualified. He ended up unemployed and homeless until enrolling in a program started by the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. that enabled him to become an apprentice electrician.

“The work PG&E provided to me restored purpose to my life and gave me a sense of direction once again,” Varela said.

Richard Davis, the CEO of Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, was among a handful of chief executives who met with Obama on Friday to discuss ways to make sure people who have been out of work for more than six months get a fair shake in the hiring process. Davis declined to be interviewed.

But U.S. Bancorp released a statement Friday afternoon saying it has undertaken an overall examination of the current language of its advertising, recruitment materials, and hiring and training protocols to make sure they do not discriminate against the long term unemployed. The company said it is “reviewing all our advertising and corporate profiles on hiring sites to ensure our language is nondiscriminatory, reviewing our recruiting materials [hiring and training] to ensure our language is non-discriminatory … and call out any roles employees may have in supporting the pledge.”

Other companies whose chief executives also appeared with Obama, the White House said, were Motorola, eBay, Deloitte, BlackRock, Morgan Stanley, Boeing, Bank of America, Marriott International, McDonalds and Walgreens.

The challenge of the long-term unemployed has become especially acute as the economy struggles to recover from one of the deepest recessions in modern times. While unemployment among those out of work for a short time has returned to historical norms, officials said, it remains high among those who have been seeking jobs for longer periods. Nearly 4 million Americans are categorized as long-term unemployed.

White House officials offered no estimate of how many workers might be helped by Obama's initiative. And, of course, every job that goes to someone who has been out of work for a long time cannot go to someone out of work for a shorter period. But officials said it was important to keep workers from growing so frustrated by a fruitless job search that they gave up altogether.

‘There is a negative cycle’

Studies have shown that, deliberately or not, companies tend to look askance at applicants who have been without a job for many months. Researchers at Northeastern University sent out 4,800 fictitious, computer-generated résumés and found that those from people out of work for six months or longer rarely got responses.

“There is a negative cycle in long-term unemployment, and that negative cycle comes from the fact that people who stay unemployed for six months or longer face significant disadvantages in the labor market simply on the basis of their status,” said Gene Sperling, the president's national economics adviser.

Also Friday, Obama signed instructed the federal government to abide by the same practices. He also announced that the Labor Department would direct another $150 million to partnerships that help workers develop needed skills.

Sperling said the event might spur other businesses to follow suit. “Our hope,” he said, “is that this is not the destination or culmination of this, but this will have a larger and more significant impact."

Washington bureau correspondent Jim Spencer contributed to this report.

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