Long-term joblessness remains high in Minn., stumping experts

Vicki Pond of St. Louis Park, Minn. networks with fellow job seekers during the Job Transition Support Group at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn. Monday, May 5, 2014. Pond, who works in operations management, has been out of work for a year and a half.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Every Monday morning, at 7:15, before most people with jobs punch in for the day, hundreds of Minnesotans gather to help each other find work.

They're part of a job transition group at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, where unemployed workers share leads and ideas, take seminars on resume writing -- and offer each other spiritual support.

Although unemployment in Minnesota is running far below the national average, it's still taking many Minnesotans an unusually long time to find work. Nearly 40,000 workers in the state have been job hunting for six months or longer.

Vicki Pond, one of those in attendance, lost her job in the operations department of an insurance company a year and a half ago, in a mass layoff. She is pursuing a bachelor's degree because she's worried her associate's isn't enough. But it's not clear if that's the problem.

"I'm told by some people, 'Well, we're really looking for someone with a bachelor's or master's degree,'" she said. "And then [by] other people, I'm being told I'm overqualified," she said.

Job seekers
Attendees of the Job Transition Support Group at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn. listen to an introduction Monday, May 5, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

As workers like Pond struggle to understand the reasons for their long-term unemployment, experts are puzzled too. It's not a familiar problem.

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"Long-term unemployment: until the Great Recession, it was a European phenomenon we didn't think we had to deal with," said Judd Cramer, co-author of a recent Brookings Institution study on long-term unemployment.

Cramer said about one third of the nation's jobless workers have been looking for work six months or more. That portion is historically high.

The Great Recession, Cramer said, pulled all manner of workers into long-term unemployment. There are equal numbers of women and men and they hail from a wide range of sectors, not just hard-hit industries like construction and manufacturing.

Cramer said even in state like Minnesota, where the jobs recovery has been decent, long-term unemployment remains stubbornly elevated. Twenty five percent of Minnesota's unemployed workers count as "long-termers."

Colleen Towns
Colleen Towns of Brooklyn Park, Minn. talks with Tim Mikkelson of Bloomington, Minn. during the Job Transition Support Group at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn. Monday, May 5, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

That's led Cramer and his co-authors to a sobering conclusion: job growth alone doesn't solve the problem.

"We don't have the statistical evidence to back up the claim that all we need is for the labor market to improve and then the situation for the long-term unemployed will go away," he said.

Cramer and his colleagues think two big factors are making long-term unemployment so entrenched, despite economic improvements. On the one hand, workers lose their skills and morale the longer they're out.

"They're more susceptible to breakdowns in family, to increase in depression and to all of these other factors that hinder not only their ability to find jobs but also to hold jobs in the future," Cramer said.

Leading a prayer group
Lonny Gulden, center, leads a prayer group during the Job Transition Support Group at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn. Monday, May 5, 2014. The group meets weekly and provides job seekers with coaching, counsel and a chance to network.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

There is also strong evidence, he said, that employers discriminate against workers who've been out of work a long time.

"Sometimes that thought comes up and I go, 'ach!'" said Colleen Towns, who was part of a mass lay-off at Supervalu. "It's been a while, and I get a little anxious."

But Towns, who has been out of work nine months, is not worried about being stigmatized yet.

"I know people who've been out twice as long, and they've landed fantastic positions," she said.

The Brookings Institution study suggests the best way to help the long-term unemployed may be to retrain them in fields that are growing. According to the report, workers aren't doing that much on their own so far.

But Towns is. She's pursuing a certificate in medical coding and billing to add to the bachelor's degree she already has in finance.

She hopes the effort will open more doors -- and show employers she's not someone who's languishing in long-term unemployment.