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Outlook bleak for long-term jobless workers

The steady decline in unemployment over the past year has offered little relief to the tens of thousands of Ohioans suffering spells of prolonged unemployment.

Nationwide, the ranks of the long-term unemployed — defined by the government as those who’ve been jobless 27 weeks or more — swelled to 5.4 million people in June, representing 42 percent of all jobless workers.

That figure more than doubled the percent of jobless workers classified as long-term unemployed when the recession began in December 2007 — 17.3 percent — and is not expected to change much when the U.S. Labor Department releases its July jobs report today.

Even in Ohio, where the unemployment rate has fallen for 11 consecutive months to 7.2 percent — a full percentage point below the national rate — thousands of unemployed workers sustain painfully long bouts of joblessness, outpacing the national rate by at least one measure.

At the end of the first quarter this year, the average duration unemployment for the approximately 87,000 Ohioans receiving state unemployment insurance benefits was nearly five months, or 18.8 weeks, according to a recent report from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. By comparison, the average duration of those benefits nationwide was 17.4 weeks.

The state does not track long-term unemployment among all jobless workers. But about 55,000 Ohioans last month filed claims for federal extended benefits, which kick in after their regular 26 weeks of state benefits expire and would qualify as long-term unemployed.

Statistics show a disproportionate share of the long-term unemployed are those 50 and older, many of whom are displaced professionals who often feel discriminated against because of their age, salary requirements and the simple fact that they are jobless — an allegation supported by the growing number of help-wanted ads seeking only candidates who are already working.

“I haven’t made it past screening interviews because they didn’t like the way I answered the question, “Why have you been unemployed so long,” said Chris Vorpe, a Dayton native who has not had a permanent full-time job since she was laid off in 2009 from her job as a quality control inspector at a automotive plant in Brookville.

Since then, the best she has been able to do is string together a series of contract jobs with long lapses of unemployment in between.

Vorpe, who Thursday attended Fairhaven Church’s monthly Job Seekers workshop in Centerville, said she had been working for nine months in her last job at a consumer goods company in Cincinnati before she was handed her third layoff notice in the past two years.

“All of a sudden I heard rumblings around the office,” Vorpe said, referring to the days leading up to her layoff in June. “It turned out the man I was working for wanted someone with a background in programming. I don’t have a programming background… So he just took me off the case, so to speak.”

Vorpe, who has degrees in chemistry and biology and decades of experience testing metals and plastics for quality control, said she is frustrated because she is done everything she can to land a job, but outside forces continue to subvert her efforts: “I was let go from the last three positions I had for nothing I had done. It was either because of the economy, or making my department smaller or some other reason.”

Bill Even, an economics professor at Miami University, shares the view of many of other economists that the plight of the long-term unemployed is mainly the result of a steadily evolving economy that has created a mismatch between the jobs employers are offering and the skills of the unemployed.

The problem is especially pronounced in Ohio, where the manufacturing industry has made a strong comeback, but thousands of jobs remain unfilled. Last year, as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs remain vacant across the country due to a shortage of skilled workers capable of handling advance manufacturing processes, according to The Manufacturing Institute, a research group supporting U.S. manufacturers.

“What our economy is going through is a major restructuring,” Even said. “And what happens when you get a restructuring of the economy like we’re seeing now is the sectors that are shrinking are going to have to shed a lot of workers, which means that the workers whose skills used to be valuable are no longer as valuable.”

While the outlook is bleak for many of the long-term unemployed, chronic unemployment carries dark implications for those still working, as well. Fewer workers on payrolls means less demand for goods and services, which is necessary to drive economic growth and sustain the jobs that have been created, Even acknowledged.

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