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Matthew O’Brien has a few pieces in The Atlantic about the effects of long term unemployment on the salability of workers trying to find a job. The short version: if you are out of work for more than six months, industries will not hire you. It doesn’t matter your age, experience, relevance to the job opening — even those that switch jobs often but were employed within that magic six month window are more likely to get called back.

O’Brien doesn’t go into why systemic unemployment exists. He simply shows Beveridge curves and makes a few vague statements about employers discriminating against the long-term unemployed. So, why are prospective employees with more than six months out of work considered so toxic that only 2% or so can even get a callback for an application?

Could it be that their skills have degraded? There are plenty of perishable skills — languages are particularly susceptible to collapse — but six months is hardly enough time for skills to degrade to unusable. Even technology based skills don’t erode that fast, these days. Unlike the 1980s and 1990s, where technology and programming techniques were changing quickly, most people now know how to use a computer. Even a switch from Windows to OSX (and vice-versa) is a matter of a few days familiarization and a bit of hunting about on Google for tips to things you might not pick up immediately.

Could it be that there is the idea that the long-term unemployed are lazy? “Bums” that have been spinning out their unemployment benefits whilst eating bon-bons on their couch and watching reruns of good TV on Netflix? When I was looking for work, I send out about three to ten applications a day. Most of these were online, so they were done from my living room…but I was hardly sitting on my ass relaxing. Unemployment is stressful.

A variation on that theme: could it be the unemployed are less reliable than even the job-hoppers that move from opportunity to opportunity, leaving as they get bored, feel underappreciated, or ahead of the employer discovering some kind of wrongful activity?

I would suggest that all of these are elements of employers’ reticence to hire the unemployed and are maladaptations to other periods of high systemic unemployment. Short of a traumatic brain injury, six months is not enough for skills to degrade to loss of proficiency. The unemployed are, by and large, not “bums” or free riders on the unemployment insurance train (but I’m sure a few are…) They are not inherently more unreliable than the serial employed.

Perhaps it is easier for human resources people to check on references of people who are recently unemployed. Their former workplace will remember them and their performance better; school enrollment and grades are easier to account for; there is less room for the jobseeker to pad their resume. Perhaps it is easier for lazy HR personnel to cull through applications by having a few early cutoffs in the employment process — much like experience is frequently eschewed for a college degree, or setting specific experience lengths, or not hiring people that have been out of work for six months. It trims the pool of applicants and makes the HR person’s job quicker and more amenable.

O’Brien’s piece might have been more useful if, instead of statistics, he bothered to interview a bunch of human resources people to find out why this is a common hiring criterion.

UPDATE: Here’s what my sister, who with her husband has a small company in Pennsylvania, and who also works for a big-ass chemical company, had to say on the matter:

Many HR orgs use a database that picks out key words to pull a few hundred resumes from thousands. then they have other programs to whittle it down to even fewer. Chances are pretty good that if they have resumes of people who are still working or haven’t been out of work for too long those are the ones that are drawn – not necessarliy because of when they last worked but because of a combination of key words that skews the data in that direction . This is not necessarily the case though. But the hiring manager depends on HR to pull potential candidate resumes from the huge stack so it’s likely they never even get to see ones from folks who’ve been unemployed for a long length of time. You’re better off with a smaller company that doesn’t use automated selection criteria.