CINCINNATI – Despite what economists are calling the country’s continuing economic recovery, nearly 4 million people across the U.S. have been jobless for 27 weeks or more.
They’re known as the “long-term unemployed.” Until last April, Nathan Smith was among them.
“I was out of work for about five years, doing off and on jobs, rehabbing, roofing,” said the Cincinnati man, who is 53. “It wasn’t really amounting to nothing.”
That’s particularly tough on people like Smith, who have worked steadily and have never before had trouble getting and keeping a job, said Sherry Kelley Marshall, CEO of the Southwest Ohio Region Workforce Investment Board.
Now the federal government has decided to tackle the issue. And Marshall is going to the White House Friday to discuss strategies to help the country’s millions of long-term unemployed.
“These are people who have worked most of their lives. They’ve always worked, and they figured they would always work until they retired,” said Marshall, whose organization has focused on people older than 50 who are among the long-term unemployed. “They need another 10 or 15 years in this economy.”
During the White House meeting, Marshall said she plans to advocate for flexibility in current federal funding sources to focus on such workers, Marshall said.
She also would like to see federal dollars allocated for technical skills training, so older unemployed workers can learn the computer programs and skills that most jobs require these days, she said.
And, Marshall said, she would like to see a federally funded version of Platform to Employment.
That’s what helped Smith last year.
The program, which was started by a workforce development organization in Connecticut called The WorkPlace, expanded to several regions last year, including Cincinnati .
Marshall’s agency started with 24 participants. One of them got a job in welding right away, and the other became too ill to participate, she said.
Of the 22 who started the five-week job readiness training, 17 completed it, Marshall said. All 17 got jobs, she said, and all are still working.
Smith is working in the kitchen at P.F Chang’s China Bistro in Norwood and hopes one day to become a head chef.
“It’s going real great,” he said of his job. “I do whatever they need me at.”
But Smith’s success was hard won, and it will take a lot more work and investment to make a dent in the problem, Marshall said.
Marshall said she thinks the federal government should fund an expansion of the program that workforce investment boards across the nation could compete to win.
“Let all the workforce boards that have large populations try to win that source of funds,” she said. “Then allow all of us to come together and talk about how we’re going to do what we’re going to do.”
Officials at The WorkPlace are pleased to see President Obama express such interest in the problems of the long-term unemployed, said Tom Long, the WorkPlace’s vice president of communications and development.
“One of the things we’ve been striving for, and we started locally, is first of all researching the problem, testing it out and trying to present a proven model,” Long said. “It’s something that takes a little while to develop. We’re just at a point now where there are success stories that are starting to percolate.”
‘A Fair Shot’
In his State of the Union Address, Obama said he has been asking CEOs to “give more long-term unemployed workers a fair shot” at new jobs.
Procter & Gamble Co. is among the corporations that will sign a pledge not to discriminate against such applicants, said Paul Fox, P&G’s director of corporate communications.
“We believe these best practices are very helpful in showcasing the importance of inclusive hiring and giving all job applicants fair consideration,” Fox said in an email. “These best practices are consistent with P&G hiring practices.”
Having that kind of support from employers is critical, Marshall said.
But mostly, Marshall said, she is pleased that the highest levels of government finally are shining a spotlight on the issue.
“The height of it was 2010. It’s 2014,” she said.
Marshall acknowledged the country has been consumed with other political issues in recent years, such as the Affordable Care Act and immigration reform.
“Meanwhile, more and more people went longer without working,” she said. “But we’re there now.”
For his part, Smith is glad he is no longer among the ranks of the long-term unemployed.
He works hard at P.F. Chang’s, he said, and he’s looking forward to marking his one-year anniversary in April.
And he has some advice for others who are still looking for work after so many months, or years, of unemployment.
“Don’t give up and don’t be too proud to take anything that comes along because it will lead to greater things,” Smith said. “You’ve got to crawl before you walk.”
WCPO Business Reporter Dan Monk contributed to this report.
For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.