As Labor Day approaches in the U.S., many explanations for long-term unemployment–that is, unemployment lasting more than 27 weeks--continue to be discussed, especially as jobs go unfilled and automation becomes more pervasive.
Some economists, such as EPI Research and Policy Director Josh Bivens and economist Heidi Shierholz write that these rates are a normal “sign that there is still a great deal of slack in the economy.” That may be, but many see the continuation of the trend—where about 3 million Americans have been unemployed for more than six months, and the percentage of the unemployed who are long-term unemployed remains at the highest level since 1948--as a huge cause for concern.
At the MIT Sloan School of Management, Assistant Professor Ofer Sharone, is studying employment trends from the human perspective asking how job seekers approach unemployment and what cultural and personal beliefs shape their attitudes and influence their success or failure in attaining work. Sharone received a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.
Sharone's research specifically focuses on career transitions, job searching and unemployment. His recently published book, Flawed System/Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences (University of Chicago Press) contrasts the job searching experiences of white-collar workers in Israel and the United States, and challenges many long-held cultural explanations. (The book is gaining traction, by the way, and just won two best book awards at the American Sociological Association).
Despite searching for work under similar economic conditions, Sharone finds that “long-term unemployed white-collar workers in Israel and the United States come to different subjective understandings of their difficulties in finding work.”
Based on cross-national, in-depth interviews with unemployed job seekers and at job-search support organizations, he says that many labor-market institutions generate distinct job search “games” which in turn, create unique unemployment experiences.
At a recent MIT IDE lunch seminar, Sharone discussed his research including two key conclusions:
- Israelis blame the system, while Americans blame themselves for long-term unemployment.
- The nature of a job-seekers’ subjective responses has profound individual and societal implications.
The Perfect Fit Versus an Imperfect System
Sharone says that U.S. attitudes are not just the result of individualism; “it’s structural.” Israeli white-collar job requirements are very rigid and applicants compete on objective skill assessments, pre-job testing, rankings and resumes.
In the U.S., however, intangibles like networking, likability and interpersonal ‘soft skills’ are often key, and those who don’t excel think “something is wrong with me.”
U.S. hiring agents consider skills, of course, but they also value credentials, background and “fit” –wanting to know the “person behind the skills,” emotions, and so on.
The application process also plays a big part. In the U.S., online job boards “are a black hole,” so networking, self-promotion and follow-up are standard and can be decisive in hiring. Israelis take pride in their merit-based system and frown on networking, which is usually viewed as “pulling strings” or currying favor.
As a result, those who don’t get the job in Israel see the system as unfair or arbitrary, but they don’t take it personally. In the U.S., when your life is an open book, rejection can be very hard and personal. Understanding these differences and offering appropriate coaching and support may lead to more successful outcomes, Sharone says. Realizing the differences, “is a first step in mobilizing for social change.”
To bolster his research, Sharone is piloting a new initiative to help the long-term unemployed and to gather valuable research on both job-seeking and hiring practices.
The Institute for Career Transitions, (ICT) operates from the assumption that not only does long-term unemployment continue, it is having hugely debilitating effects on those caught in its grips. ICT is a non-profit organization whose mission is “to generate effective strategies, offer practical support, and increase public understanding of the challenges facing professionals in career transitions.” It offers five key areas of focus:
- Fostering collaboration
- Generating research
- Increasing awareness
- Engaging professionals
- Providing assistance
The first ICT initiative aims to provide free and effective job search support for unemployed job seekers. Longer term, it would like to provide data-driven strategic guidance and policy recommendations for professionals undergoing career transitions.
In the words of Bivens and Shierholz:
It's too soon to give up on the long-term unemployed. We found no evidence that today's high long-term unemployment rate is due to anything other than the weak economy. For example, were we facing skills mismatches, there would be evidence of tight labor markets relative to 2007 for workers in at least some occupations, industries, education levels, or demographics. However, the long-term unemployment rate is elevated across the board. There just aren't enough jobs for everyone who's looking.
Regardless of whether the elevated long-term unemployment is structural or due to the weak economy, Sharone, who is the Mitsubishi Career Development Professor and an Assistant Professor of Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, wants to offer relief to those who are hardest hit.