Long-term job hunters still struggle

Kansas and Missouri are among nine states that grant fewer than the national standard of 26 weeks of unemployment benefits.
Kansas and Missouri are among nine states that grant fewer than the national standard of 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. AP

A “brutal” legacy of the Great Recession — diminished living standards — endures for people who suffered, or still suffer, from long-term unemployment.

According to a national report released today by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, one in five workers who were laid off during the last five years is still looking for work.

While the American economy continues its slow recovery, about 3 million people remain in long-term job searches extending beyond six months. Two million of them have been job hunting for more than a year.

It’s the worst long-term statistic since the Great Depression. The percentage of unemployed workers who had been out of work for more than six months hit 46 percent in 2010. In last few months it’s slipped to the 31 percent to 35 percent range — but that’s still higher than the 26 percent peak in 1983, the previous worst recession.

“Seven years after the recent recession started, this group is still struggling,” the study’s principal author, Carl Van Horn, said in an interview. “They’re not getting re-employed, and if they do, they’re having difficulty getting a job that paid what they made before. Often, it’s temporary or part-time work, so they’re not even pulling even with where they were before.”

The economic slump dubbed the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, 18 months after it began in December 2007, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research’s business cycle dating committee. But the committee made it clear that the official end didn’t mean the economy returned to full health.

Nearly half the long-term job hunters in the Heldrich Center survey said it will take three to 10 years for their families to recover financially. An additional one in five said it will take far longer — or they never will recover.

Overland Park resident Ken Heitland knows that unease well. He’s been job hunting for 18 months and acknowledges the financial and emotional devastation.

“I’ve drawn down my savings and robbed my retirement, and we’ve nipped and tucked our household expenses every way we can,” Heitland said Friday, on his way out the door from a job hunters’ support group meeting.

He holds a doctoral degree in instructional systems technology and a master’s degree in educational media. He’s trained as an English teacher, has excellent writing and speaking skills and management experience, and looks far younger than his 64 years. He keeps hearing that he’s “overqualified.”

“I’ve done all the right job-hunting things,” he said. “I’ve been through the screening interviews, the face-to-face interviews with the hiring manager, the presentations to groups. I tell them I don’t need the kind of management work I did before. I get good feedback, but then I don’t get hired. … I feel like my energy, mind and creativity are going to waste.”

Van Horn said the Heldrich Center report, “Left Behind: The Long-Term Unemployed Struggle in an Improving Economy,” was based on survey results that clearly detected those mental and financial tolls.

The survey found 55 percent of the long-term unemployed saying they probably will retire later than planned. On the flip side, 5 percent said the recession forced them into early retirement.

The report also said that long-term unemployment affected a higher number of job hunters between the ages of 45 and 59 than any other age group.

Van Horn said survey responses struck him in another way, too: Only 9 percent of the long-term unemployed said they’d received job-hunting help from a government-sponsored agency, such as the U.S. Department of Labor’s career centers — available in most cities around the country.

(In the Kansas City area, the Workforce Partnership offices on the Kansas side and the Full Employment Council on the Missouri side have government contracts to provide job market information, job hunting advice or job retraining.)

“If you’ve been unemployed for seven months or more, you need some help,” Van Horn said. “It’s better than sitting at home searching on the Internet.”

Ron Cooley, an Overland Park resident, volunteers at Kansas City area job-loss support groups to help teach about networking through LinkedIn and other job-hunting tips. In recent months, he said, it’s become more crucial for job hunters to quickly begin using the best job hunting techniques available.

“The number of eligible unemployment assistance weeks has fallen dramatically,” Cooley said. “People are dropping off the assistance rolls in just a few weeks instead of months. They’re going into financial jeopardy a lot sooner.”

Cooley said it’s important for both unemployed and employed people to pay attention to the stark findings of the Rutgers report.

“A lot of people haven’t any clue what (unemployed) people are going through,” Cooley said. “That’s why I encourage job hunters to go to job clubs. They’re places where others understand. The public, even loved ones, too often think, ‘You’re good. You can get a job,’ or ‘What’s wrong with you that you can’t get a job?’ They just don’t understand.”

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to

The Great Recession’s Legacy

Here’s how American adults rated the magnitude and permanence of the economic downturn on their lives:

Currently employed

Unemployed and job hunting

Long-term unemployed at any time in recession


17 %

19 %

33 %


18 %

18 %

10 %

Set back

11 %

23 %

21 %


27 %

16 %

19 %


28 %

24 %

17 %

Source: John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development

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