Anyone who has ever lost a job knows that it takes time to find another one, particularly in times of high unemployment. Since the start of the Great Recession in December 2007, millions of Americans have experienced long periods of unemployment. These extended stretches of joblessness are not only financially devastating but also detrimental to the job search itself because in the current job market, the longer a person is unemployed, the less likely he or she is to find a new job. Once job seekers have been unemployed for six months or more, they become part of the population of “long-term unemployed,” and thus much less desirable to employers.
Even as the general unemployment rate has dropped during the past few years, prospects for the long-term unemployed have remained slim, causing this population to suffer significant financial, emotional, mental and physical distress. Counselors — particularly career counselors — are working to help the long-term unemployed find jobs and heal the scars of joblessness.
“Policymakers have not fully recognized or adequately addressed the crisis of the Great Recession,” says Dave Gallison, a licensed professional counselor from Portland, Oregon, who specializes in career counseling. He notes that long-term unemployment rates are still higher today than at any point since the Great Depression. “Everyone sees the unemployment rate and assumes that things are improving,” he says, “but the numbers that are not seen and barely counted are the millions of long-term unemployed, people who can only find part-time work and discouraged workers who are not currently looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them.”
Part of the problem is that there still aren’t enough full-time jobs for everyone who wants one, according to a September study out of Rutgers University, “Left Behind: The Long-term Unemployed Struggle in an Improving Economy.” The study reports that as of August, there were nearly 9.6 million unemployed workers in the United States, including 3 million people who had been unemployed for longer than six months and more than 2 million who had been unemployed for over a year. In addition, the population of involuntary part-time workers (those who want to work full time but can find only part-time positions) grew from 4.4 million people in 2007 to 7.5 million people in June 2014. The study also notes that although the majority of jobs lost during the recession were mid- to high-paying positions, most of the jobs added during the subsequent recovery have been low-wage positions.
In addition to competing in a market with an insufficient number of jobs, those who have been looking for work for more than six months face another significant barrier to employment. A study conducted by Princeton University professor Alan Krueger and using data from the U.S. Census Bureau found that from 2008 to 2013, only 11 percent of people who had experienced long spells of unemployment had found steady full-time work within 16 months’ time.
In a 2012 study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, two researchers sent out almost 5,000 fictitious, computer-generated résumés with identical credentials but varying lengths of unemployment in response to job offerings. They found that the “workers” with six or more months of unemployment almost never received a response to their applications, even when they possessed the required experience.
Unemployed, unhealthy and unhappy
As unemployment drags on, many job seekers also increasingly experience physical and psychological difficulties that may make it even harder to find a job. A Gallup survey conducted in 2013 found that 1 in 5 people who had been unemployed for more than a year reported currently having or being treated for depression — a rate double that of the general population.
Numerous studies, not just in the United States but in England, Wales, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, among others, have found that those who are unemployed experience higher mortality rates. The specific mechanisms of the mortality risk have not been identified, but results taken from the 2013 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index indicate that obesity levels rise with the length of unemployment. In addition, the long-term unemployed are twice as likely to report having high blood pressure or high cholesterol as those who have been unemployed for a shorter length of time.
Experts note that the mental and physical health problems experienced by individuals who are unemployed don’t just make it more challenging to find work but may also make it harder for them to hold onto a job once they secure new employment. Krueger’s research suggests that many people who have gone through long periods of unemployment return to the ranks of the unemployed within one year of finding a new job. Clearly, job loss is a multifaceted problem, requiring career counselors to assist not only in the job search but also with the fallout of becoming unemployed in the first place.
“For counselors, few client life events rival the emotional strain of job loss,” says Gallison, a member of the National Career Development Association (NCDA), a division of the American Counseling Association. He explains that for many people, what they do is synonymous with who they are. So, when they lose their jobs, they question not only their judgment but also their priorities and ideals.
A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that long-term unemployment had profound effects on a person’s social life, career and confidence level. Approximately 38 percent of those who had experienced long-term unemployment said their degree of self-respect had decreased (compared with 29 percent of those who were unemployed over the short term). Strikingly, roughly 7 in 10 people who were currently unemployed or had been unemployed said they had changed careers or thought seriously about doing so.
Gallison says people faced with job loss and long-term unemployment often deal with a level of grief akin to what someone might experience when going through a divorce. “I help people work through the stages of grief,” he says, explaining that this process aids people in accepting the reality of the loss and working through their pain.
In addition to navigating that sense of loss, clients need help cognitively reframing the self-blame that often accompanies joblessness, says Rich Feller, an ACA member and former president of NCDA. “Self-blame … deflates energy and strips dignity,” he says. “Clients need support knowing what is and is not under their control. Without that, they misdirect psychological energy, blaming and defeating themselves rather than performing job search and networking efforts.”
Counselors can start to counteract clients’ self-doubt and self-blame by helping them recognize that long-term unemployment is a widespread problem caused by a damaged economy, not because they are “damaged” themselves, explains Feller, a professor of counseling and career development at Colorado State University.
But even if clients have worked through the grief and self-blame associated with job loss, they may need help addressing other disruptive elements.
“They have to adjust to an environment in which [much of] their former social fabric is gone,” says Gallison, offering an example. Most people in full-time jobs in the United States spend more than 40 hours per week at work. In the process, they typically form important friendships in the workplace and engage in activities that become an important part of their social life. Once a job is gone, it can leave behind a big hole in the client’s social fabric. During times of unemployment, staying in touch with friends and family is especially important to retain a sense of connectedness and stave off loneliness, Gallison says.
He also suggests that clients who are unemployed get involved with a group that appeals to them, whether that group is religious, community-based, sports-oriented or interest-based. Becoming part of a group can reduce the sense of isolation that those who are unemployed often feel, while also providing missing structure. Both Gallison and Feller point out that without someplace to be every day, it can be challenging for people to organize their efforts.
Strategies for hope
Lack of support and structure can also contribute to a feeling of being stuck. Clients need to know that “where” they are — a period of long-term unemployment — isn’t a permanent place but rather part of a process, some of which they can work to control, notes Feller.
Gallison agrees. “Unemployed clients must commit to a process — perhaps six to 12 sessions over several months — of self-understanding, internal change and change of work search habits and behaviors,” he says. His process involves helping clients determine their career needs and goals, showing them how to effectively pursue positions in their areas of expertise and teaching them strategies for interviewing.
Gallison is mindful of the need to move quickly. After all, for the long-term unemployed, time really is money. He begins with a general assessment to gauge the client’s job search efforts — how has the client been searching for work, how successful have these efforts been and how could the search be more effective? Gallison is also a big proponent of bibliotherapy to help job seekers clarify what they are looking for in a job search. He regularly recommends that clients read such books as What Color Is Your Parachute?, I Didn’t See It Coming, Transitions and Do What You Are.
Gallison also likes to do a values and motivation assessment because rather than learning simply what the client is good at, he gains insights into what motivates the client. Understanding individual motivation can help Gallison and the client determine the type of workplaces (nonprofit, corporate, large company, small company and so on) best suited to the client.
Developing a focused list of companies and potential positions to target is one of the first steps Gallison encourages clients to take in the active phase of job searching. He first has clients draw up lists of business sectors that interest them, such as health care or finance. Next, Gallison instructs clients to search a list of businesses in their city, town or state (typically available online or at a local library) and select companies for which they might like to work and potential job titles for which they might be qualified.
With their lists in hand, Gallison prompts clients to reach out to friends, family members, former co-workers and other acquaintances to find potential contacts in the clients’ areas of interest. He also teaches clients to mine their alumni associations for job leads and links to industry leaders. In addition, Gallison likes to send his clients to job search groups because he believes participants — particularly in subgroups such as people holding doctorates or moms returning to work — can learn from one another. Gallison also searches his own professional network for possible leads for clients. He believes teaching clients to develop contacts and set up informational interviews is the best way to help them access what he calls the “hidden job market.”
The workplace social media site LinkedIn is also crucial for networking and finding leads, Gallison says. However, most people don’t pay enough attention to their LinkedIn profiles, he says. “A good LinkedIn profile shares things with a good résumé, but people tend to dump their whole history of past jobs [on their profile],” he says. Instead, he teaches clients to focus on setting up a summary that’s short and convincing — much like the proverbial elevator pitch — accompanied by a few bullet points from recent jobs.
Learning how to set up a good LinkedIn profile is only one part of the self-marketing that Gallison teaches clients. “They need to stand out with really great cover letters and résumés that target the specific employer and position they are applying for,” he says.
And when that résumé draws the attention of prospective employers, Gallison makes sure that his clients are ready with mock interviews. “We talk about what their strengths and weakness are, [which] could be anything from taking too long to answer a question to not making eye contact to not knowing how to dress,” he says.
He also teaches clients how to research the company, understand who the company’s competitors are and be familiar with the company’s mission so they will be prepared to answer questions and ask questions of their own that demonstrate their knowledge of the field.
Unfortunately, some long-term job seekers have an even more difficult time than others, Gallison says. He sees a disproportionate number of men over age 50 in his practice and says that older workers, as well as recent high school and college graduates, are most likely to be among the long-term unemployed.
A common problem with recent graduates and older workers is their lack of relevant experience. Because of the economic downturn, older workers may also have gaps in their résumés. To compensate, Gallison gives his clients strategies to camouflage these gaps or their relative lack of experience. “I coach them to use their résumés selectively and, if at all possible, not use the résumés until further along in the process,” he says. When trying to secure informational interviews, clients can draw up a statement summarizing experience rather than providing a full résumé, Gallison explains. In addition, long gaps in employment can be minimized by listing only years — rather than the month and year — with their employment history.
Volunteering is another effective way for anyone who has been unemployed long term to compensate for employment gaps, Gallison says. But beyond that, volunteering is an effective avenue for acquiring relevant experience, making contacts and just getting out of the house and meeting people, he says.
“Helping others [by volunteering] can help job seekers feel more connected [to the world],” adds Feller.
Recent graduates should look to their alma mater for help during a job search, says Rebecca Michel, a licensed clinical professional counselor and assistant professor of counseling at Governors State University in Chicago. “Establish a strong connection with your university career center,” she advises. “Also look to former faculty for possible mentors.”
At the same time, individuals who are unemployed shouldn’t rely on their colleges or universities as the only avenue for making contacts and finding opportunity, says Michel, an ACA member who studies employment across the life span. She advises those who have been unemployed long term to join professional organizations in their areas of employment interest. In some instances, they may be able to volunteer or even seek leadership positions within the organization, she says.
Individuals who are unemployed should also consider looking to local colleges for certificates or courses that can help them regain job skills or acquire new ones, Gallison says.
The road less taken (for now)
Sometimes, the traditional full-time job might not be the best or even an attainable option, says Ron Elsdon, author of the book How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption.
Elsdon, an ACA member, believes the future of employment for many workers will involve putting together different consulting or part-time jobs based on professional skills and personal interests. For instance, someone who works in finance could become a freelance financial writer or teach finance at a local community college or as a tutor, he explains. That person could add to this freelance or part-time work with a completely different job based on personal interests, such as woodworking or massage therapy.
The change in how workers view employment has already started, according to Elsdon, who is a private practice career consultant and coach in Danville, California. “About 40 percent of the workforce has [already] been engaged in some form of nontraditional work,” he says.
Elsdon works with clients to identify their interests and skills and how these might come together for employment opportunities. He claims that people who pursue this kind of part-time, nontraditional path report much higher levels of satisfaction than do people in full-time traditional jobs. [After this article went to print, Elsdon provided links to data he references in his book: here, here and here.]
Gallison thinks it is beneficial for people to reconsider how and why they work, in part because they are more likely to realize that work doesn’t define them, while also being less willing to let their jobs consume them. However, he still thinks the lack of job openings for those who need them is unacceptable.
“Now that unemployment has slipped below 6 [percent] — 5.9 [percent] for September 2014 — for the first time since mid-2008, this issue is in even further danger of seeming passé or irrelevant in the public consciousness and [to] policymakers, and perhaps even [to] mental health professionals,” he says.
The counseling profession should refuse to let the long-term unemployed get left behind, Gallison declares. “We need to and can advocate successfully for change [in employment practices], just like we achieved mental health parity,” he emphasizes.
Gallison urges counselors to contact their legislators to lobby for help for the long-term unemployed. If counselors and other helping professionals don’t stand up to encourage assistance for the long-term unemployed, Gallison is afraid no one else will.
“It’s out of sight, out of mind,” he says. “This should be treated as a national emergency. There should be a sense of outrage.”
Helping workers with disabilities overcome career barriers
People with disabilities often have the least promising prospects among all job seekers. Discrimination certainly plays a role in that circumstance, but it can also be because disabilities may have prevented individuals from developing the social and professional skills needed for long-term work success, says Deirdre O’Sullivan, an American Counseling Association member and assistant professor of counseling education at Pennsylvania State University in State College.
Sullivan has a background in and still teaches courses in rehabilitation counseling. She is currently researching whether counselors could use the Developmental Work Personality Scale (DWPS) as a tool to help gauge the professional strengths and weaknesses of people with disabilities. The DWPS consists of 27 items that assess behaviors, role models and tasks that individuals encounter during middle childhood.
The scale, designed for adults (either with or without a disability), asks participants to self-assess school behaviors that researchers believe correspond to developing a healthy work personality. Using a scale that goes from 0 (not at all like me) to 5 (very much like me), participants agree or disagree with statements such as “In school I completed my work on time” and “I felt good when I completed my homework.” The DWPS has three subscales or areas of concentration: work tasks, social skills and role models.
Most people develop their abilities to perform tasks in the DWPS’s three areas of concentration, or domains, in school because that is where children learn to interact with peers, listen to authority and meet deadlines, O’Sullivan says. “Most people who are underemployed or chronically unemployed are missing one of these domains,” she explains.
O’Sullivan thinks counselors might be able to use the DWPS and the concepts behind it to go beyond the typical reasons that people may be unemployed. A person’s school and homework habits and whether that person now gets along with bosses and meets deadlines at work may be sensitive areas, but what a counselor discovers can ultimately help the client, she asserts.
“Help people identify if they have any areas they need to improve in order to be the best worker they can be,” O’Sullivan urges. “[Help them ask] ‘How do I improve my ability to resolve conflict? How can I connect with mentors?’”
Thoughtfully considering the answers to these questions could benefit any job seeker, but they are particularly important for people with disabilities, who may be more likely to face problems and, in many cases, discrimination at work, O’Sullivan says.
If a client has experienced disability-related work problems in a former job, a counselor can help the client discover what accommodations he or she needs and how those accommodations can be addressed under provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act, O’Sullivan says.
“[People with disabilities wonder], ‘How do I get my accommodations filled and still seem like I’m really working full time?’” O’Sullivan says, adding that counselors can help with that process.
In today’s market, the unemployed need all the help they can get. And as O’Sullivan points out, “People with different types of disabilities — visible or not — experience a lot of barriers [at work].”
The American Counseling Association has two divisions that specialize in employment and career development: the National Career Development Association and the National Employment Counseling Association. To learn more about these divisions and their professional journals, visit counseling.org/about-us/divisions-regions-and-branches/divisions on the ACA website.
Earlier this year, ACA published the fourth edition of Career Counseling: Holism, Diversity and Strengths by Norman C. Gysbers, Mary J. Heppner and Joseph A. Johnston. The career counseling process outlined in this best-seller is both practitioner-friendly and effective with clients of all ages and circumstances. For more information, visit ACA’s online bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore.
Also, see Counseling Today’s “behind the book” Q+A with coauthor Norman C. Gysbers: ct.counseling.org/2014/07/behind-the-book-career-counseling-holism-diversity-and-strengths
To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:
- Ron Elsdon at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rich Feller at email@example.com
- Dave Gallison at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rebecca Michel at email@example.com
- Deirdre O’Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org