Commentary: Untapped Talent


While our region has steadily recovered from the Great Recession to an unemployment rate now in the low 5 percent range, we suffer from a problem that is endemic across the country: We have a large population of long-term unemployed. In the Seattle metro area, there are an estimated 21,856 workers who have been unemployed for more than six months. 

That number does not include the more than 11,000 “discouraged workers” who are no longer counted as unemployed because they have given up looking for a job. 

Business leaders need talent to remain competitive. Yet they acknowledge that their own hiring practices may be getting in the way. Many of them find employers won’t consider hiring them regardless of their work ethic, experience or skills. The long-term unemployed are as educated, on average, as their recently unemployed peers. Nearly 61 percent of them have attended college or a technical training school, compared to 59 percent of those who have been unemployed for less than 26 weeks. Although a disproportionate number are older, 34 percent of the long-term unemployed are younger than 45. The long-term unemployed represent a diverse group of workers spanning all industries, education levels and age groups, and they include both blue- and white-collar workers.

One thing the long-term unemployed have in common is that, if they’ve been out of work eight months or more, they’re likely to get called back for an interview only about half as often as those who’ve been out of work one month, even with an otherwise identical résumé. Employers must do more to seek out the long-term unemployed and give these workers a fair shot during their hiring processes.

But it’s also true that, in some cases, the skills of the long-term unemployed are not matched to the needs of employers. In such cases, we as a community need to help them find ways to update those skills. Recently, the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King  County got a grant of $1 million to recruit — and match to jobs — 500 individuals who meet the definition of being long-term unemployed. The WDC has worked with private sector companies to build long-term solutions to meet challenges in sectors such as health care, interactive media, maritime, green jobs and the public sector. 

Through partnerships with area community colleges, we are working with employers to identify areas where employers need trained workers. They include such sectors as advanced manufacturing, maritime and health care, where there is a high demand for workers. Some employers are offering more apprenticeships that allow workers to learn new skills without paying high costs. 

On the advice of maritime companies and in partnership with South Seattle College and North Seattle College, we invested in maritime welding and maritime manufacturing cohorts. The program is a customized six-month course, which trains a group or “cohort” of job seekers in key technical skills required to take on jobs in sectors such as shipbuilding. The curriculum was developed in cooperation with employers in the shipbuilding industry to make sure students coming out of the program have the skills employers need.

The WDC has also received an $11 million, five-year regional health care job-training project funded by U.S. Health and Human Services that uses best practices to train 920 unemployed adults and youth and help place them place in healthcare occupations. 
Using this “cohort” model, the WDC has trained more than 786 workers in more than three dozen programs, including the Maritime Welding Program, with a course completion rate of 82 percent. Those who complete the course are moving directly into jobs.

King County also has 11 community and technical colleges that are partnering with the WDC and industry to develop curricula that will train students to meet the needs of the job market. 
While the results of these programs have been stellar, the numbers of long-term unemployed in King County are still in the tens of thousands, not hundreds. We need to do much more in order to address the challenges faced by the long-term unemployed. They want to work and are ready to work. We hope the business community will continue to work closely with us to help address these challenges. 

Marléna Sessions is CEO of the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County.

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