Employment Gaps: Still a Stigma for Hiring Managers?

The economy, specifically jobs and job creation, was at the forefront of the presidential campaign. The focus won’t die down just because the campaign is over. Exit polls from the Associated Press showed 60 percent of voters Tuesday said the economy was the major issue facing the nation.

Americans have reason to be at least cautiously optimistic when it comes to the labor market. The October jobs report, released Nov. 2 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, marked the second consecutive month the unemployment rate fell below 8 percent — a number we haven’t seen since January 2009.

Still, nearly 40 percent of unemployed Americans — more than 5 million people — have been out of work for more than six months. And they’re likely to continue to remain out of the workforce. The average duration of unemployment is just more than 40 weeks, according to the October jobs report.

A Closer Look at Long-Term Unemployment
HR professionals have become accustomed to seeing these long-term employment gaps on resumes during the recession and subsequent recovery period. Still, practitioners in the field, such as Mike Barefoot, senior account executive at staffing firm Red Zone Resources, said HR hasn’t let go of the stigma associated with long-term unemployment.

“There is still a negative stigma toward people who have been unemployed for a while,” he said. “We see companies that have job postings that explicitly say they’ll only accept resumes of people who are currently employed.”

Others in the field, however, have seen some type of shift in how hiring managers view long-term employment gaps.

“Before 2008, the employment gap would have bothered me a lot,” said Beth Kelly, president of ConnexSource, a provider of HR management for small and medium-sized businesses. “I would want to know why the gap was there. The only reason I would be talking to them is if they displayed a specific talent I wasn’t otherwise able to find.”

Kelly works in Michigan, one of the states hardest hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs in the last five years. Now, she said, almost everyone has some sort of gap on his or her resume. “It’s like a badge of honor in west Michigan,” she said.

The trick to attracting the eye of hiring managers nowadays is being creative with how you present that employment gap, Barefoot said. Candidates who fill the gaps with volunteer work, education or consulting tend to have better chances to re-enter the job market, he said.

Just last week, Barefoot helped place a Web developer who had spent the last few months working a low-paying job at a department store to help make ends meet. The developer did consulting work on the side, so he was able to show potential employers that he had continued to keep up with his Web development skills.

Closing the Skills Gap
It’s this potential for a skills gap that often keeps the long-term unemployed from re-entering the workforce, said Jay Jamrog, senior vice president of research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity, a research institution that focuses on people management at high-performing organizations.

“In this recession, HR professionals are being more strategic about human capital,” Jamrog said. “They’re asking: What is the core for our success?”

Right now, if you don’t have the skills required for the job, you won’t get hired. As the labor market shifts, however, and the supply of jobs comes more in line with the demand, companies will be forced to reinvest in skilling their new workforce, Jamrog said.

Kelly is already seeing this on the ground in Michigan. Across the state, there are 77,000 unfilled jobs because of a lack of talent. The manufacturing jobs aren’t going away, but the nature of these jobs is changing dramatically. Soon, companies will have to offer new employees the ability to re-skill on the job or risk not filling the position altogether, Kelly said.

Jeffrey Cattel is an editorial intern at Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.