Job seekers could soon get a boost from a research team at MIT. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg
Job seekers could soon get a boost from a research team at MIT. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg

If there is a way out of America’s crisis of long-term unemployment, it's possible nobody has a better chance of finding it than a new team of five researchers based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Their project, the Institute for Career Transitions, will take a data-driven approach to figuring out the best way to help the long-term unemployed land jobs. The research is the first of its kind; with 4.1 million Americans who have unable to find work for more than six months, it couldn’t be more important.

“I think what’s happening here is unique,” said Ofer Sharone, the MIT sociologist who co-founded the research center. “We want to help, and we want to figure out the best way to help.”

Sharone’s team has designed what a scientist would call a randomized controlled trial to test whether support in the job search can help the long-term unemployed find work, and if so, what kind of support has the greatest impact. About 130 job seekers will be randomly selected and matched with 63 different career coaches. They will receive either one-on-one or group support over the next three months.

The effort is at the same time a sort of miniature think-tank. It’s staffed with researchers who hope the small-scale pilot program will yield ideas for further study and for scalable job-placement programs that could make a big dent in long-term unemployment.

“This group, the long-term unemployed, faces real discrimination in the labor market,” Sharone said. “The question is whether job-search strategies can make a meaningful difference against that discrimination. That’s never been tested before.”

A key member of Sharone’s team is Rand Ghayad, a labor economist whose studies of long-term unemployment have shown that employers toss out the resumes of the long-term unemployed, no matter their job qualifications. After more than six months without a job, Ghayad found, an applicant has less than a 5 percent chance of getting an interview. If Ghayad is right, then the U.S. can’t count on an economic recovery to re-employ those who have gone without work for more than half a year.

“Skills aren’t the obstacle for most of the long-term unemployed. Screening by employers is,” Ghayad said in an interview. “Networking, helping the long-term unemployed overcome screening, and teaching them how to be more attractive in job interviews are what we hope will make a difference, and it’s the focus of this research.”

Ghayad and Sharone form a curious duo. Both have concentrated on fieldwork and not theory, yet their methods differ strikingly: Ghayad leans toward the quantitative, whereas Sharone is known for qualitative research based on interviews. What brought them together on this project, both said, was a shared concern that the long-term unemployed were trapped and could not escape without help.

That help doesn’t exist. Federal and state programs focus on job skills, not the hiring process -- and advice from career coaches was both too expensive and badly tailored to positions.

That’s tragic, the researchers think, because help in the job search may be what the long-term unemployed need most. White-collar employers rely on intangibles -- do they like you? -- to pick from applicants. In that environment, discouragement and disconnection put the long-term unemployed at a disadvantage.

“I call it the `chemistry game,’” Sharone said. “Job search is based on rapport and networking. Hiring decisions are based on interpersonal and cultural fit. This game makes the unemployed vulnerable.”

There’s a limitation on this research: This help is expensive. The coaches in the study are all volunteering their time, and doing this at scale would cost billions. But so do welfare and unemployment benefits. What the researchers hope will come from this is a proof of concept or a more cost-effective way to help.

Ghayad said he is focusing on data analysis while Sharone handles much of the fieldwork, especially as it relates to physical and psychological well-being. The project started randomly matching unemployed job seekers with coaches this month. About 50 pairs have been made so far, and they aim to reach full scale by the end of the year.

It’s not clear why employers have shunned the long-term unemployed. Many of the participants in the study are highly skilled and have previously held white-collar jobs. They seem easily employable. Yet for most, middle age and a long spell of unemployment seem to scare employers off.

“A big part of our research,” Ghayad said, “will be identifying which variables matter most to finding work.”

The second part, Sharone added, was using data to teach career coaches how to help.

“Often the advice from career coaches is something like `you can take control of your job search,’” Sharone said. “This is meant to inspire, but it backfires badly for the long-term unemployed because it implicitly blames them for their unemployment.”

It has been a terrible few years for the long-term unemployed. The conclusions of research from labor economists such a Ghayad and Sharone haven’t exactly been encouraging, either.

“Now,” Ghayad said, “I hope we’ll be able to have the first bit of good news for them.”

(Evan Soltas is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)