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Obama Pushes Employers To Consider The Long-Term Jobless


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The U.S. Labor Department says there are nearly four million people in America who've been unemployed for six months or more. That number has remained stubbornly high, even as the overall unemployment rate has fallen. Yesterday, President Obama met with U.S. business leaders and urged them not to overlook qualified job applicants just because they've been out of work for a while.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports it is the latest move by the president to try to act when Congress does not.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It's a sad fact of the modern job market, or as President Obama puts it, a cruel Catch 22.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Folks who have been unemployed the longest often have the toughest time getting back to work.

HORSLEY: At the White House yesterday, the President pointed to research showing job applicants who have been out of work for eight months are only about half as likely to land an interview as those with similar skills who've been unemployed just a few weeks. Erick Varela learned that the hard way. When he left the army six years ago, he found himself out of work for a full year.

ERICK VARELA: You hand over your resume and the first thing they look at is the dates that you've worked. And one of the first questions that I'd always get is where's this missing year? And it just seemed like right off the bat you were, you know, strike one before you even got into the interview.

HORSLEY: Unable to find work as a heavy equipment operator, which he's trained for, Varela applied at fast food restaurants and retail stores, but no one wanted to hire him.

VARELA: You start feeling like you're not doing your job. Like, you know, you're letting your family down, and it's just a horrible feeling.

HORSLEY: Finally, Varela enrolled in a training program sponsored by a utility company and eventually he was hired as an apprentice electrician. But Obama says employers are overlooking two many good workers. He urged business leaders to reexamine the way they advertise job openings and screen applicants to make sure people trying to get a foot in the door don't have it slammed in their face.

OBAMA: And we really don't have an alternative because giving up on the unemployed will create a drag on our economy that we cannot tolerate.

HORSLEY: The president met yesterday with CEOs from a wide range of companies, including McDonalds, Marriott, eBay, and Boeing, who've promised not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed. Jim Moffatt, the CEO of Deloitte Consulting, says his company is eager to find more hard-working talent.

JIM MOFFATT: These kind of programs are critically important, not only for the country but for the economy. Access to people with skills and talents that are committed to work are exactly what we need.

HORSLEY: The president also directed federal agencies to look at their own hiring practices to make sure they're treating all applicants fairly. Yesterday's meeting capped a weeklong series of events in which Obama relied more on personal persuasion than the force of law to pursue his agenda. The moves were mostly modest in scope, but speaking to CNN from a Wisconsin factory this week, Obama insisted he won't be hamstrung by congressional inaction.

OBAMA: In no way are my expectations diminished or my ambitions diminished, but what is obviously true is we've got divided government right now, the House Republicans in particular have had difficulty rallying around any agenda, much less mine.

HORSLEY: Even so, the President says he'll keep pressing Congress to act on some measures, including a renewal of the emergency unemployment benefits that ran out late last year. With each passing week, another 72,000 people lose their jobless benefits, adding one more challenge for the long-term unemployed.

OBAMA: It's a lot harder to look for work if you can't put gas in the gas tank.

HORSLEY: Obama calls the unemployment benefits an economic lifeline, but it's one kind of help he can't offer on his own. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.