Networking can be key to escaping misery of long-term dole queue
THE number of people who are long-term unemployed -- that is, for 12 months or more -- probably exceeds 100,000 at the moment.
Past evidence shows that the chances of re-employment for such people diminish, the longer the period of unemployment. The traditional explanation is that being unemployed for a long time means that skills become stale or irrelevant.
However, research in Denmark in 2007 suggested that another hugely important factor is that the long-term unemployed become increasingly isolated from the network of people that are in work, or are only recently unemployed.
This matters because surveys showed that employers recruit largely through informal networks.
The "I have the man for you"-type of recommendation, emanating from people known to each other, counts for more in filling jobs than formal interviewing and screening carried out by recruitment and other agencies.
The information about an individual from the network will contain all his social, family and work-related characteristics. No formal approach to recruitment can do this so thoroughly, or at such low cost.
Networks are channels through which information is obtained, problems tackled and business conducted.
Most people are almost unconsciously part of naturally-grown networks. These centre on work, family, social connections, education and so on.
Networks intertwine the social and business aspects of our lives.
They carry all sorts of information which enable us to run our lives better and avoid pitfalls.
Not least, these networks enable us to get work, whether that is a few hours doing somebody's garden, or linking up with someone in a hi-tech company which is looking for a full-time person with skills that match our own.
But if you are unemployed, especially if you are among the long-term unemployed, your network is restricted. You are "out of the loop". The natural networking environment provided by work is gone.
Former colleagues tend to drop out of your network because you now have less in common, and they may feel awkward or guilty because they still have a job.
Long-term unemployed people may feel a sense of failure and thus do not mix readily with former colleagues. Isolation brings its own social difficulties, quite apart from the obstacle it poses to becoming re-employed.
Government schemes to "upskill" and "retrain" reach relatively few of the unemployed and, in any case, may miss the importance of being left out of important networks as a key issue for the long-term unemployed.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the unemployed see little point in new training. The lack of uptake of some FAS schemes tends to support this view.
In the current climate it is all too easy, if you are unemployed, to give up and say, "There are no jobs." But this is not really true.
There is still turnover in the jobs market, albeit at a much lower level than in the boom.
The key question, raised in the research in Denmark, is: "Why do some people get jobs and others do not?"
This question is valid, irrespective of whether the economy is growing or in recession. Long-term unemployment persists, even in the boom times, admittedly at a much lower level. This clearly implies that there are unemployed people who are not able to re-enter the workforce, after some months of unemployment, even when times are good.
While lack of education and skills may present barriers to getting a job, the problem of obtaining full information about an employee, (or indeed employer) would still present problems, even if skill deficiencies were not an obstacle. The way in which people who are unemployed find a matching employer is not seamless.
The unemployed may not know that there is an employer out there who needs them. Even if they do discover this basic fact, they may know nothing else about what it is like to work for this employer.
Equally the employer may know nothing about the applicant, other than that they look good on paper. But how motivated are they? What sort of social skills have they? Would they upset the balance in an existing smooth functioning team?
The Danish researchers suggest that formal avenues of investigation of potential employees by employers are not regarded as highly trustworthy. Based on their surveys, 61pc of companies always or mostly used word of mouth through employees to announce new job vacancies.
In 64pc of cases, employers regarded recommendations from their own employees as "decisive" or of "great importance" when filling posts. An oral recommendation from a former employer was also seen as carrying significant weight.
However, recommendations from employment agencies, educational institutions and indicated written testimonials from former employers were less highly regarded.
The research also indicated that employers were extremely sensitive to the length of a candidate's period of unemployment when hiring.
All those surveyed felt there were particular risks connected with hiring those with a long period of unemployment behind them.
On this evidence, the long-term unemployed are heavily dependent on their own contacts with the labour market if they are to get work.
They need "word-of-mouth" recommendation from existing employees to overcome the perceived handicap of having been unemployed for a long time.
The research went on to look at how good the ties of the unemployed were with the labour market. It was found that 41pc of the long-term unemployed live alone as compared to only 20pc of employed people.
Moreover, only 35pc of the long-term unemployed lived with a partner who was employed, as compared to 69pc of those who were employed.
Weak ties with the labour market among the long-term unemployed were also evident through the employment status of their friends.
The survey showed that 82pc of those employed did not know any unemployed people. Only 36pc of the long-term unemployed could say the same thing.
Networking is important in business but it would appear that it is vital for the long-term unemployed if they are to hope to re-enter the workforce.
The long-term unemployed need to strengthen their links to people who are employed. There is little point in having networks based solely on people who are unemployed.
Networks are cheap to establish and maintain. There are benefits to be gleaned by employed people from having links to those unemployed, if the social awkwardness can be put aside.
We need to appreciate more the context in which unemployed people find themselves and not concentrate exclusively on training as a palliative.
Eunan King is managing director of King Research Ltd