The Depressing World of Want Ads for the Unemployed

Kari Lydersen

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported on two disturbing developments on the front lines of the job search recently. A July 26 Times story said employers only want to hire people who are currently employed or recently laid off – and specify as much in their want ads – because they think people who’ve been out of work for longer have lost the competitive edge or fallen behind in the field.

In most states it is legal to advertise that only the employed or recently laid-off need apply, since job status isn’t a protected class like race or gender. And even in states including New Jersey that prohibit such ads, employers can easily tell from one’s resume whether they have been long out of work.

Meanwhile, a July 12 WSJ story relayed the strange phenomenon of unemployed people outsourcing their job hunts to Indian service centers – often with surprising amounts of success. Through various automated services, most of them staffed by tech workers overseas, people can send out thousands of resumes to recruiters based on certain words in their want ads. Job seekers can determine roughly how wide a net they cast by setting the search parameters – for example, to include all jobs in sales.” That means a salesman like one featured in the WSJ story can end up applying for jobs as a manicurist, fitness coach and hair stylist.

This resulted in awkward situations where people got job call-backs for jobs they didn’t even know they’d applied for. And apparently in many cases they actually got the jobs, often where their own human searches had failed.

The first development is frightening and disheartening. The idea that just the fact you’ve been out of work means you are likely to stay out of work much longer obviously creates a vicious cycle and this revelation is sure to make desperate and frustrated job-seekers even more so – not good for the self-confidence and optimism crucial to marketing oneself and just staying sane in tough times.

The Times story said:

Idle workers’ skills may atrophy, particularly in dynamic industries like technology. They may lose touch with their network of contacts, which is important for people in sales. Beaten down by months of rejection and idleness, they may not interview well or easily return to a 9‑to‑5 schedule.

The second story is just odd and maybe even a hopeful note for job-seekers, but it also underscores the random, arbitrary and impersonal nature of today’s employment landscape, where a plethora of service and sales jobs require a quickly-changing and amorphous or undefined skill set. Not a bad thing if you get one of these jobs…but the idea that learning a craft or trade or developing a wealth of experience in a given field ensures gainful employment has for many people fallen by the wayside.

The first story noted that employers aren’t necessarily impressed by people going back to school during their unemployment. Many training and continuing education programs don’t equip people with skills or credentials that are really competitive in the job market, even if the student or the federal government have paid thousands of dollars for courses – witness the scandal with for-profit colleges that target low-income people. 

Back in December 2010, the Times reported on the growing numbers of people who fall into the category of long-term unemployed, who employers are likely to turn their noses up at. It said the United States is developing an underclass of permanently idle workers” much like European countries have long had, but in most of those countries there is more of a social safety net and less social stigma for this group. That story reported:

This country has some of the highest levels of long-term unemployment — out of work longer than six months — it has ever recorded. Meanwhile, job growth has been, and looks to remain, disappointingly slow, indicating that those out of work for a while are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a hearing in February on whether discriminating against the unemployed is illegal, since it disproportionately impacts older workers and African Americans.

In written testimony National Employment Law Project Executive Director Christine L. Owens said:

While refusal to consider the unemployed is sometimes overtly noted in ads, at NELP we also hear regularly from unemployed workers — mostly older workers — who despite years in the labor force and significant directly relevant experience are nevertheless told they will not be referred or considered for employment, once recruiters or potential employers learn they are not currently working.

The underlying message of both stories seems to be that for many unemployed people who once had well-paying service or professional jobs, you are largely on your own in a game of chance.

Your personality, connections and experience won’t necessarily help when employers facing a buyers market play the odds that currently employed or recently laid-off workers are a better bet…and a computer sending out resumes from across the globe may have a better chance of landing work than you do.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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