Then a friend steered him to U.S. Bank, which was piloting a White House initiative for hiring the long-term unemployed. “There are some companies that ask you for any involuntary termination,” Columbus said. “Those companies never call back. U.S. Bank looked at me as a whole person with 30 years of experience.”
If Columbus, a 53-year-old New Hope resident, embodies the woes of Americans out of work for more than six months, the Obama administration hopes a new hiring drill at Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank helps the nation address an ugly legacy of the Great Recession.
Some recent research shows that businesses would rather hire people with no experience than experienced workers who have been out of work for a long time. Using recommendations from a handbook drafted by Deloitte Consulting and the Rockefeller Foundation, Minnesota’s fifth largest public corporation is searching for ways to give a fairer shake to those job seekers. The handbook “increases knowledge of conscious or unconscious bias” against the unemployed, explained U.S. Bank human resources chief Jennie Carlson.
This consciousness-raising has yielded new employees like Columbus, whose extended jobless status and age often left him drowning on the bottom of the applicant pool. The bank’s work drew the praise of a senior White House official.
“U.S. Bank has taken an active leadership role in this initiative, including partnering with peer companies to engage other Twin Cities employers to embrace these practices,” Byron Auguste, deputy director of the National Economic Council, told the Star Tribune in an e-mail.
Whether programs like the one U.S. Bank piloted can work nationally “depends on whether employers are doing this [discrimination] unintentionally or whether they believe it produces a better pool of workers,” said Joe Ritter, a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota.
There has been progress. The ranks of the long-term unemployed have shrunk by 900,000 since the White House hiring initiative kicked off in January. But that is not yet enough to address the drag of long-term unemployment on the economy. In mid-2009, people out of work more than 27 weeks accounted for over 40 percent of the nation’s total unemployed. Last month, more than five years into economic recovery, the long-term unemployed still represented almost one-third of the country’s jobless. Today, roughly 3 million Americans have been out of work more than 27 weeks.
Even in Minnesota, which consistently boasts employment rates a couple of percentage points higher than the national average, the long-term unemployed struggle to find work. A decade ago, the percentage of Minnesota’s unemployed who had been out of work more than 27 weeks was in the teens. Since 2010, it has been in the low 30s or high 20s.
Rather than write these people off using impersonal screening processes, U.S. Bank implemented ideas to increase personal contact and focused on matching skills with job openings, regardless of an applicant’s employment status. The company signed an employment pledge with the White House in January 2014 with 300 other U.S. companies, including Richfield-based Best Buy. Then, U.S. Bank was picked as one of several pilot sites for tweaking personnel policies.
The company still talks to would-be employees about prior layoffs. But there is a conscious effort by recruiters and applicants not to let layoffs dominate the discussion.
“The employer handbook reminds us to look at all of a person’s story,” Carlson said.
U.S. Bank now partners with nonprofits and government agencies to identify specific long-term unemployed individuals who might make good employees, Carlson said. The bank also steers experienced applicants who fail to get hired on their first try to other openings.
In mid-October, Carlson met with officials at the White House to discuss ways to broadly distribute handbooks to the long-term unemployed and the businesses that might hire them. She also talked about how companies that piloted the new hiring model can help integrate it into America’s business culture.
A few weeks ago, U.S. Bank joined private businesses, including Target Corp. and Wells Fargo Bank, at the Twin Cities Long-Term Unemployment Initiative kickoff. The meeting aimed to connect private companies with Minnesota nonprofit groups and state and local agencies that can serve as pipelines to promising applicants that usual screening processes might exclude.
Ritter, the economics professor, likened employer discrimination against the long-term unemployed to racial profiling.
“To me, it seems possible that many employers don’t know they are doing it,” he said. “If that’s true, it could be like dealing with racial profiling. Training and awareness help.”
Letting the long-term unemployed languish costs the economy in lost productivity and tax revenue and increased spending on government welfare programs. But getting them back into the workforce means valuing what they offer.
“The idea,” Carlson said, “is to begin with a warm relationship instead of a cold one. … The most important piece is removing barriers.”
Columbus knows all about barriers. He has been laid off four times in his IT career. With each succeeding layoff, the difficulty finding work increased.
He went back to college in 2008 to complete a degree program. It didn’t seem to matter. Because of his job history and increasing age, the pickings stayed slim or got slimmer. Once he’d been out of work for a certain period, it was as if he was tainted.
“They grill you,” he said. “ ‘Why can’t you find a job?’ ”
Or at least keep one.
He applied for 70 different jobs at the health insurance company where he used to work before he found someone in the organization willing to hire him.
“And there were probably 200 to 250 applications at other companies” that didn’t pan out, he said.
The U.S. Bank job was no slam dunk either, despite the company’s new focus on helping the long-term unemployed. Columbus worked with several of the bank’s recruiters. He made it to the final selection process for posts as a project manager and an audit services manager, but lost out on both.
Close to running out of money to pay his bills, he applied for something else. The recruiter working with him pointed him away from that job to another one in risk management auditing. It turned out to be a perfect fit for his skill set.
“It was not three strikes and you’re out,” Columbus said of his new employer’s approach.
It can’t be, explained Carlson, if the idea is to get people back to work who haven’t had a job for a long time.