It’s Hard to Get a Job if You Haven’t Had a Job For a Long Time

Matthew O’Brien reports on a recent study showing that companies are reluctant to hire people who have been out of work for six months or more. A pair of researchers sent out thousands of fake resumes that were identical except that some showed a long spell of unemployment and some didn’t, and then tallied up the callback rates:

The results are equal parts unsurprising and terrifying. Employers prefer applicants who haven’t been out of work for very long, applicants who have industry experience, and applicants who haven’t moved between jobs that much. But how long you’ve been out of work trumps those other factors.

….As long as you’ve been out of work for less than six months, you can get called back even if you don’t have experience. But after you’ve been out of work for six months, it doesn’t matter what experience you have. Quite literally. There’s only a 2.12 percentage point difference in callback rates for the long-term unemployed with or without industry experience….In other words, the first thing employers look at is how long you’ve been out of work, and that’s the only thing they look at if it’s been six months or longer.

I wish there were a baseline study to compare this to, because I doubt this is anything new. Hiring managers have always been suspicious of applicants who have been out of work for a long period. Partly it’s because skills can atrophy over time. Partly it’s fear that someone out of work for a long time might be lazy and not all that committed to working. Partly it’s a hunch that if no one else is interested in an applicant, there’s probably a good reason for it. Partly it’s a sense of uneasiness that a long spell of unemployment might represent a hidden problem of some kind (drugs? recent divorce?). Or perhaps that someone out of work for a long time might be bitter about it.

When the economy is stronger, and it’s harder to fill open jobs, you might get some callbacks anyway. When the economy is weak, as it is today, and hiring managers have a dozen good candidates for every opening, you’re completely out of luck. Any black mark is enough to kill your chances. Some of this might be rational and some of it might not, but it’s not something that’s just popped up recently. It’s just more noticeable because of the lingering effects of the Great Recession.