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The American Way of Hiring Is Making Long-Term Unemployment Worse (hbr.org)
145 points by pmiller2 1460 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 106 comments

I think at one point in America's history, Long-Term-Unemployment(LTU) was a semi-decent indicator of a possible problem-employee because nobody was questioning "Is college worth it?". Back then, you were pretty assured that your degree(whatever it was) guaranteed you a job... so if you didn't have a job for a long time, then either you're a lady who became a mom or you're a man who messed up in life. But today, especially after 2008/9 real-estate mess, a bunch of totally legit people fell into LTU by no fault of their own... but the stigma still remains.

I also think this is more a problem for non-tech jobs. In today's world, if a software-engineer wanted to travel the world for 8 months I suspect she could easily get a job when she's done. She'd probably be getting recruiter-calls while on vacation.

I just did that. I turned 50 last year and took about 9 months off to travel the world. When I came back, I posted my resume online and had a job within days. And there's nothing special about my resume, mostly just .Net web programming, though I'm admittedly fairly good in the technical interview.

The only place I sensed age discrimination were the places I wouldn't work anyway, the crazy "we expect 65 hours a week" shops.

I don't know. I can't tell if the phenomenon of ageism in tech is under or overrated, but I do think that techies have the advantage of never truly being out of work, so long as they're hacking away at something.

In fact, older LTU workers could learn from the tech strategy of consulting and freelancing when "gaps" in their careers emerge. So long as you have something to show for it, such as a new skill or someone in your network that can raise their hand and say, "Oh yeah, she mentored me through this big project my company is working on" then you can help yourself out a bit.

I want to know how much of this is HR's fault. What the hell are they looking for, and why? Everyone admits this is a problem, but HR goes on as if they're oblivious to it. And then you read about how they're dismissing candidates that don't have an adequate social media presence, and you begin to wonder why on earth these goons run hiring.

The situation is that hiring is determined by managers, that is to say people who define success as moving into management as quickly as possible. They see someone who hasn't "made it" in a long career of remaining hands-on and by their value system that person is a failure.

HR facilitates but it's the hiring managers - i.e., the people who will actually manage the new employees - who define the requirements. So, the managers have the crazy expectations, not HR.

> And then you read about how they're dismissing candidates that don't have an adequate social media presence...

Is this a real thing? I'd like to know more.

I can't tell if the phenomenon of ageism in tech is under or overrated

It's bad in VC-istan but I don't think it's bad in technology as a whole. There are plenty of 50+ programmers at places like Google who are well-regarded.

The fear that many of us who are in our 20s and 30s is that the culture of age discrimination-- one that we, although young, really don't support, but that is inflicted upon us by the VCs-- will get worse in the next decade or two. Right now, it's not apocalyptic and most good programmers will be fine. The concern is that if VC-istan becomes the new normal in employment, ageism will be more of a problem when we get to 40+. Right now there are still a lot of good jobs for 40+ programmers at the Staff+ SWE level at places like Google and Amazon, but that won't be true if VCs acquire more power.

Everyone admits this is a problem, but HR goes on as if they're oblivious to it. And then you read about how they're dismissing candidates that don't have an adequate social media presence, and you begin to wonder why on earth these goons run hiring.

HR looks for reasons to reject people. They have to, because they get so many junk resumes. They cut for too old or too young or too long at the last job or too short at the last job. You need, whenever possible, to engage with people who are looking for reasons to accept people.

In other words if your career is in any way unusual, the HR folks don't want to let you in. They have no way to judge a resume by objective standards because they haven't got a clue about the work being done in their company. So they rely on hiring people who conform to some fantasy of what a modern company employee should be like.

In my experience, the hiring managers have been the problem, not HR. I've been very frustrated by my managers' attitudes and expectations when trying to hire folks for my team. They've rejected resumes against my recommendations. And after interviews, they've declined to offer jobs to people that I thought would be great fits. And then they continue to complain to their managers that we just aren't getting quality candidates. Not true!!! And again, this is not HR. . .these are the hiring managers.

HR looks for reasons to reject people. They have to, because they get so many junk resumes.

I'm a good developer at a good job and not that old. A few years ago I was in transition between a several-year volunteering engagement and work in the private sector, and the job search took a while. I got very few interviews at the time. I would have been an asset to any decent employer that hired me. I do not think the resumes I submitted were junk.

There appear to be structural changes underway that are making the job market volatile for a range of people, especially the long-term unemployed. I am not sure where it is all heading.

I do not think the resumes I submitted were junk.

Not all rejected resumes are junk, but there's a flood of resumes from unqualified people who send out 100 per day.

It's like dating. The more damaged people engage in more activity, so you encounter a biased sample. If the good people send out 5 resumes per job search, targeted toward specific employers fitting their skills, while the unqualified send out 200 (in the hope of getting lucky) then you'll have a 40:1 overrepresentation of the bad.

You were probably a victim of the junk, because when there are so many junk resumes flying around, good people get lost in the shuffle.

There appear to be structural changes underway that are making the job market volatile for a range of people, especially the long-term unemployed. I am not sure where it is all heading.

Yes, that is very true. I don't know, either. In the next 30 years, society will need to establish a basic income just to be marginally stable, because there's no other way to pay for the periodic retraining people need as one job ends and another begins.

>because there's no other way to pay for the periodic retraining people need as one job ends and another begins.

Companies used to train people. I'm actually a basic income proponent for similar reasons, among others. But when you put it like that, why should the taxpayers foot that bill and not the companies that reap the value?

But when you put it like that, why should the taxpayers foot that bill and not the companies that reap the value?

The companies won't foot the bill. They'll just hire very young people with the relevant training or send the work overseas.

Technology is more about job replacement than destruction. The problem is that few companies are willing to train people up. The world is unfortunately too big for there to ever be a real labor shortage (at least, in the next 30 years).

No worries, it's quite clear to me that the VCs won't acquire any more power.

Interesting. Why do you say that?

>I also think this is more a problem for non-tech jobs. In today's world, if a software-engineer wanted to travel the world for 8 months I suspect she could easily get a job when she's done.

My sister did just that and landed a job immediately upon returning.

I did the same thing (~2 years), but then it took three months and five rejections (including flying to four offices) before a compatible offer materialized. I was getting worried and kinda running out of money. Whoops.

Three months isn't really that bad. They used to say the rule of thumb was one month for every ten thousand you expect in salary. And that's in a "normal" economy.

I had a long job search once (long story) and what surprised me was that the rejections weren't the biggest confidence killer. Far worse were the lowball offers and too-junior positions that just felt like D+'s. Those were harder to get over.

I can deal with not being hired for lack of fit, but at my age being offered a junior position is an insult. There are plenty of reasons someone might not hire me and many are neutral (position filled, bad day on my end or theirs) but a crappy offer at least feels like a statement.

Ha! I was approached by an in-house recruiter for a startup who advised me to revise my resume. He said that my resume reflected someone with a scientific programming background (the position I was aiming for) as opposed to the dev ops background needed for the low-paid dev ops position they were looking to fill.

Yeah, I was having trouble finding a job in late 2008 when the market got really weird, and a recruiter was the one who clued me in to my resume problems. I'd never really had any trouble finding a job before, so I didn't have a lot of resume-building expertise.

I didn't have resume problems--I had a recruiter call me out of the blue and complain that my resume was for something other that the position he was attempting to fill!

I would take this as a compliment, if it weren't a poorly paid position.

You're right. They discerned ability already present in the more primitive and ancient regions of the brain--for them the capabilities associated with more recent evolutionary developments were a distraction. I was subjected to a surprise quiz, in which one of the answers, dredged from a primal race memory, was "mdadm."

Out of curiosity, what does "junior position" mean, exactly? Is it that you want to be more of an architect and were being offered programming positions?

Or am I just assuming programmer, and you're actually something else?

There's junior in social standing and junior in official position.

If you're told your boss manager will be a 23 year old who was BFFs with the founders all growing up, and you are 35 with 15 years of experience, that's kinda degrading.

If you're a 30 year old with 10 years of experience and you're being offered less than what an undergrad gets entreating into facebook or apple or google ($30k sign on, $50k+ worth of 4-year options to start out with (which will easily be added to so you can cash out $500k to $1M within 6-8 years)), that's kinda degrading too.

Sometimes your specific experience doesn't match the outside world anymore. Maybe you have eight years experience using Custom Designed Internal Framework that's of no use to the outside world. So, there you sit, being judged along side people with eight years less experience than you because all your experience is "hidden" to the new company, their interview process, and your social peers.

There are many ways jobs and the interview process can make you feel less than stellar.

Well, the OP seemed to have something specific in mind and I just was wondering what it is.

Of your examples, the one with less money is just less money. I understand issues with a drop in salary, but the reference to "junior position" above seemed to imply more than salary.

On the first, I've been older than my managers for years now. Who cares? I don't want to be a manager, I enjoy programming. I care deeply whether that 23-year-old is a good or bad manager, but that has nothing to do with how old she is.

Less money isn't always less money. I've taken less money for positions at what I thought were worthy organizations, and was rewarded by being treated like shit into the bargain.

I've taken less money for positions at what I thought were worthy organizations, and was rewarded by being treated like shit into the bargain.

If you're a professional, your rate is market or pro bono. Anything in-between just gets horrible. Your salary is what it costs the company for management to waste your time. If your salary's low, your time will be wasted.

A salary is paid in exchange for an employee's time, which implies that when management has employees sitting idle or otherwise misdirects their energies, the salary is what it costs to continue doing so. But I would not characterize a salary as the cost of wasting an employee's time--just the cost of their time. But you seem to suggest that ceteris paribus, a market salary is the minimum for which a similarly employed person would be indifferent to being kept idle. Perhaps this holds for a small interval dt. I lack the intuition that employee preference matters.

wasting an employee's time

In the sense of "meaning of life stuff" (fulfillment, meaning, purpose, etc). Your salary is what you charge someone to make you do things you wouldn't normally do. Sometimes, especially in "tech," jobs and natural interests align. In the normal world, that isn't always so.

If that 23 Year old is one of the first engineers and built much of the system then yes, you are going to be junior to them no way around that they most likely earned their spot working crazy hours when the company could barely be called one. There are two sides to every coin, if you want to avoid that then look to join really early companies and be the one that earns the spot by building the system.

Junior Position is a euphemism for "job that's not going to pay market rates". My experience in tech is that most true "junior" roles are covered by internships...

I think that getting a good junior engineer experience is rare and hard unless you start and land in the exact right place. If you attend Stanford or Harvard and your CS professor is a friend of someone VP-level in your company, then you'll still be "junior"-- at market-fair entry-level rates-- but you're going to be groomed to grow quickly and have a lot of freedom to travel the organization as you look for a fit that matches your talents and will enable you to rise quickly. If you're anyone else, your junior programmer years are every-person-for-him/herself and unless you fight hard (and job hop) you will get stuck doing the dreck that no one wants to do, that you don't learn from, and that shits all over your career.

At Google, if you attended Stanford and landed in the Mt. View office (the office being more important than the school) there was, even when I was there, a decent chance of getting a legit SWE-2/SWE-3 experience that would train you to make more of yourself, and make promotions (up to Staff) basically ensured so you could focus your energy on actually learning and becoming a great engineer.

Yeah, I agree with you. My career started at MSFT long ago and gained good experience quickly...so if you happen to land at a top tech company, you'll get the right experience. I think this goes for almost any high-end career, too.

But as it is now, I see a lot of companies seeking Junior-level positions, but with big expectations and knowledge requirements. Everything except wanting to pay a proper salary.

Out of curiosity, what does "junior position" mean, exactly?

I'm 30 with 7 years of experience. I wouldn't say I'm a top-1% programmer (probably top 5%, possibly 2%) yet but I'm a really good data scientist and I've seen a lot of different corporate environments. Also, being a Lisper (but also knowing well the virtue of static typing, having worked on production Ocaml systems) I have good taste. There are still some holes in my knowledge (I was a math major, not CS) but I'm filling them pretty quick.

I wouldn't take a job where my day consists of being handed bugs or small features in some large project where the decisions were already made. Someone else can churn tickets, I'm past that point in my career. I'm not a prima donna. In the short term (say, two weeks) I'll do what is required no matter how unglamorous. But in the long term (3+ months) I'm not going to work in a role that's incoherent with my career objectives.

I only work in roles where I get to make some of the technical decisions, because if I'm purely in an implementation role, I won't learn anything. I generate ideas and implement them; if I'm only doing the second of these, then the work is meaningless to me. If the project is big and complicated-- say, 2.1 to 2.3 in difficulty on this scale: http://michaelochurch.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/the-trajector... I'd probably be doing that under light supervision and that's fine, but if I'm not engaging in a learning process and in control of what I work on, then I'm wasting my time at this age.

Is it that you want to be more of an architect and were being offered programming positions?

Senior programming is different from junior programming. As with writing, there are varying forms of it and they have different flavors that might not be obvious to those who don't do it on a daily basis.

A junior programmer fixes bugs and implements features that come downstream from executives, product management, and more senior programmers. There's a lot of value in that experience, if it comes with mentorship, when you're starting out. But when you get to my level, the quickest way to learn is to do things and find out directly what works and what doesn't.

A senior programmer gets to set priorities, generally has a lot of autonomy over what he works on, and has input (and, often, final say) in product and architectural decisions.

It's not about title, as it were. There are plenty of people with "Senior" in their title who are junior in terms of how they work, and there are others without fancy titles who are de facto senior.

Thanks for the clarification.

But, you know, in context, there's a huge difference between not finding a job and not being able to easily make the next step up in your career.

At 7 years, you just don't have much senior experience (that's a comment about years, not knowledge or talent). 7 years is a lot of programming experience, it's just not a lot of senior dev or team lead experience.

It's a good career move to insist on this in your next position, and I'm not doubting that you're capable of it, but that puts you in a completely different category than somebody who can't find work at all or somebody who's been a senior dev for 20 years and can't find a position.

One thing to be aware of is that a lot of shops, myself included, almost never hire senior/leads directly. I'll pay your salary request, but no matter who you are, you're going to spend a couple of months on somebody else's project before you lead your own, just to understand the code base, the team, the tracking and VCS systems, the culture in general. We may have an understanding that you'll lead the next big project if you don't flame out, but you're still going to have to spend some time down in the code trenches.

it's just not a lot of senior dev or team lead experience.

In the traditional world, yes. But what about our wacky tech world where the 22 year old is a founder/ceo/manager of the entire company? Are you less experienced and knowledgeable that that person?

I agree with your part about not hiring externally for new internal projects though (unless all your other internal projects are horrible and you need new blood to get out of institutional brain damage).

To extend your "insult of being offered a junior position" line, sometimes engineering interviews will test for willingness to leave or bouncing aroundy-ness. But it's always a losing game if you're a candidate over 40, ISTM, because even if you are just fine with a junior position and eager to accept their offer and get to work, they often perceive you as someone who will bounce as soon as a better offer comes along (and of course, if you're not fine being a junior just to get back in the game you wouldn't be talking to them).

Yes, I just took 18 months off work, and I'm finding that no one cares. Seems like the fact that I can code is plenty of reason to hire me.

It's a really, really good time to be a programmer. I don't know how long it's going to last, but it's really good right now. I recently took 2.5 years off (during which I worked on my own technical projects, which helped a lot), and not only did I get a lot of recruiter interest during that time, once I started seriously looking for a job again, it only took about one month to get exactly the job I had been fantasizing about for years. They asked about my time off, but they asked really politely, as if they were afraid of putting me off.

I'm curious, what's the job you were fantasizing about for years?

Any discussion of "overqualification" should begin with this chart: http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm

We often worry that acquiring human capital is a double edged sword, but it's hard to find that in the data.

That said, BLS has written that older workers face both lower rates and longer durations of unemployment: http://www.bls.gov/opub/ils/summary_10_04/older_workers.htm

It seems contradictory at first glance: how do older workers have better and worse luck at the same time?

One way to explain this is that as older workers gain in specialized skills, it makes "search costs" more difficult, it's harder to match them to the right job. PhD's in narrow disciplines face a similar situation: it's much harder to find that good fit right out of school, but in the long run, once you find a place, you're more likely to be well compensated, poached, or retained in employment by those who understand your skill set for the rest of your life.

There could be other explanations. But from the raw data, if you had to bet on someone being employed, try to pick someone who is highly educated and older, no question.

So, not only is college "useless" now, so is having experience. As 31 year old DevOps making $low_six_figures, this is somewhat worrying re: future prospects.

Even adapting is no assurance of your future employability.

This story resonates with me because while I have had an active consulting business for about 15 years (and right now I have a consulting gig at Google), twice in the last five years potential customers wanted to hire me for projects but they were blocked by their HR departments who thought I was LTU. Offering to show tax records did not help.

I am also in my 60s, so I also feel for people who might suffer from age discrimination (or gender, race, religion, etc.)

There should be a level playing field, but sadly that is not always the case.

But that is horrible. Just to rephrase:

> twice in the last five years potential customers wanted to hire me for projects but they were blocked by their HR departments who thought I was black. Offering to show birth certificate of my father did not helped.

While I can appreciate the point you're trying to make. Please don't think not hiring someone because they're black, and not hiring someone because they've been, or appear to have been, unemployed for a long period of time are the same thing.

There is no ethical, legal, and legitimate reason to not hire someone for a consulting job because they're black. There is an ethical, legal, and legitimate reason to not hire someone because they have been unemployed for a long period of time. Or to at least consider other candidates who don't appear to have been unemployed for a long period of time.

I'm hoping your comment about showing a parent's birth certificate was solely an attempt at an analogy and not meant to be something you think realistically would or does happen. An employer can't deny a candidate employment because a candidate is or isn't black, or their parents are or aren't black. That's the point. Race and color are both protected classes in the US [1]. A person's long term unemployment, just like their level of education and attractiveness, isn't a protected class. Meaning a job can discriminate against a person all day every day based on their history of long term unemployment.

And just to add, the birth certificate of one parent doesn't determine a person's race as far as society is broadly concerned, particularly if you're considered black in the US [2][3][4].

[1] - http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/ [2] - The President of the United States [3] - http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/12/%E2%80%98one-d... [4] - http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixe...

> potential customers wanted to hire me for projects but they were blocked by their HR departments

It absolutely boggles my mind that at any company an HR department would be able to block a hire like that. I mean why not just give the accounting department veto power over hires too?

I'm curious: how was it not obvious to those HR departments that you run a business?

I don't know. One HR person told me on the phone that I had been unemployed for too long. Any data I gave her fell on deaf ears. But, it was that that company's right to not hire me for any reason. No hard feelings.

Very strange, since their employees vouched for you. That means the HR department basically judged "well, our employees say he is worth $X,000, but we suspect he is actually a hobo"

I've thought about this as a solo freelancer. Within my (small) niche, everyone knows who I am, and I can point to external signs. Outside my niche, people pretty much have to take what I say on faith when I describe what I do.

Are you incorporated or acting as a freelancer?

Not so much a comment on the thesis, but the actual "research" is missing and it would improve the essay if it was actually presented. Even in a synopsis. Its a shame, as the The only link is to the "forthcoming book" on Amazon.

My research, involving in-depth conversations with hundreds of unemployed job seekers, indicates that no group of workers is more committed to contributing to a company that gives them a chance to prove their value than older workers who have been long-term unemployed.

Importantly, while some employers fear that older workers will not sticking around, my research suggests the opposite is more likely. It’s worth considering whether, in fact, it is younger workers in their 20s and 30s who are more likely to be actively searching for opportunities to move across jobs in an effort to develop a portfolio of marketable skills and experiences. Older workers are really looking for a company where their considerable skills and experiences are valued and can make a difference.

One concern tha jumps out (i'm sure to many) is the reference to a measurement of "future comittment", which seems at best unpredictable. Take, for example the divorce rate amongst newlyweds. His methodology may indeed be wide-rangingly useful (assuming its good), but we don't get a sense of it here. It does seem, in any event, that the HR heuristics at BigCos these days are apparently shallow.

It stands to reason that if the bias against long term unemployed workers is strong enough there will exist a surplus of highly qualified workers who have been out of work for 6 months or more. Everything else being equal, the long term unemployed could be hired at lower than market wages for their skill level. A smart company could pick up qualified workers pretty cheaply by ignoring unemployment length right now.

I'm far more interested in the VALUE of a prospective employee than I am in the COST.

I expect a technical employee (myself included) to bring to the company some multiple of their salary each year. With that in mind, I'm far more interested in the possible upside of a good employee than in reducing a portion of the costs of a possibly cheaper employee. (I'm generally "on the hook" for some amount of constant costs: 401-k match, insurance, building occupancy costs, free food/drinks, management attention/overhead needed, etc, so a 25% lower salary might only net me a 15% lower overall cost.)

Long term unemployed, excessive job hopping without good explanation, long stints of employment without promotion or other evidence of growth are all red flags. They're not fatal in isolation, but believe me, they get scrutiny by hiring managers who are paying attention.

Someone involuntarily out of work in a tech field for 6 months is likely to, at a minimum, interview poorly. (Otherwise, they'd likely land somewhere inside of 2 months.) For your plan to work, one has to be willing to low-ball a candidate who likely just interviewed poorly with you. I don't think the risk-reward works out, which is why I'm probably part of the problem, but willingly so.

Candidates that interview poorly get a polite rejection, not a lowball offer.

>I'm far more interested in the VALUE of a prospective employee than I am in the COST.

Heh heh. Well, sure. It isn't your money.

But you are not competing against competitors who might steal them away for -24%. You are competing against Walmart: -75% salary, -100% fringe benefits.

Still misses the value side, but even on the cost side, that's just a recipe for getting someone back in the workforce for 18 months until they re-establish their credibility and confidence and jump ship to another firm for what will be a 300% raise for them. I wouldn't blame them in the least; they'd be an idiot to keep working for me under those circumstances.

Hugely helpful for the employee, but an "adequate, not spectacular" employee who works for me for 18 months isn't helping my company much overall. The first 6 months is straight negative; the next 6 is break even, and the next 6 pay back the hole we dug in the first 6. So, good for them and hopefully break even for me, except I lost 18 months of "tempo" with one of my employee spots.

For a cash-strapped company, this plan might make more sense. For a profitable and growing later-stage company, I think this makes much less sense. (I work a much later stage company, so that surely colors my opinion and biases here.)

That would be true if hiring were generally rational with an objective of finding qualified workers.

In my experience this is not just a problem with older workers and with long term unemployed, but also a problem with immigrant workers. There is a lot of experience out there that could be a productive part of the economy if only hiring managers would give their head a shake and break out of the ritualistic processing of resumes.

More creativity is called for. For instance, are you snowed under by 300 resumes for only one position? Maybe you need to rethink how you describe your requirements. Read every 10th resume and then rewrite your requirements. Winnow down the resumes to a semi-short list based on one or two key things. For instance in software development look at the type of projects they did. What did they deliver regardless of the technology that they used. You will probably still have 100 resumes. Then send your new requirements to each of these people by email, give them 24 hours to reply with a two page letter explaining how they can help you achieve what you have described in your new requirements. Probably most of them either won't reply in time, or their letters will be godawful things that you can't even read to the end.

But you will find a few gems to interview.

To do this right your new requirements need to focus on describing the problems that you face and the timeline in which you want to solve those problems. Ask people explicitly to question your current approach. Maybe that guy with no PHP experience actually does have something to offer to your all-PHP shop.

Or do something else. Just do it creatively, think out of the box, and try to make it interesting for the applicants as well.

I just went through a (long for me) job search. As someone who has typically been able to have another job within days, this time it took me roughly three months. It was exhausting and frustrating, but also very eye-opening. I found a pattern among companies that gave me great insight, and from that I could choose a course of action.

I found two different companies trying to hire -- those looking to fill positions, and those looking to solve problems. Huge difference between those two; the former is tactical, the latter is strategic. Everyone needs to strive to find the latter.

I found interviews with those looking to "fill a position" bordered on the absurd in terms of their hiring approach. It throws you (the job seeker) off your game and makes you question your own competency. Don't fall for it; keep looking for those companies that are trying to solve problems.

Can you elaborate? Every company I've ever encountered is looking to fill a position because it has a problem to be solved that needs someone in that position to help solve it -- they can't develop their new product without three new programmers, for instance. Strategy is executed via tactics, they're not mutually exclusive.

Could you give some more concrete examples, or something? Are you talking about ongoing maintenance jobs (like your time will be spent mostly bugfixing) vs building-new-product jobs? I'm really curious what you mean.

Don't take that in the literal sense -- of course, anyone who is hiring someone is technically filling a position. Think of this as a classification of a company's motivation to hire in the first place.

I found companies that were "filling positions" were those that had a previous role defined, and now needed to either replace the previous owner, or add to the organization (they had budgeted for it, for example.) These tended to be larger companies, and the focus for the job was the role. In these cases, the role had largely been pre-defined.

The short-list of companies I spoke with that were trying to "solve a problem" didn't think about what role someone should fill, but rather what capabilities a candidate could bring to their team. These companies I found were often smaller (less than 100 employees), although I'm sure it could apply to larger ones. The difference with these companies is that their focus (from my vantage point) was not on organizational structure, but rather on thinking about how a candidate could augment their team.

It was very eye-opening, and once I picked up on that pattern, I began to ask the "right" questions.

Pass a law exempting businesses and individuals from paying payroll taxes on new hires for the length of time the person was unemployed before they hired them.

This almost seems like an unfortunate consequence on the "Innovator's Dilemma", whereby older workers compete on experience and qualifications, but are then deemed overqualified by employers. Much like how technology consistently outpaces market demand.

Rather, it seems like workers need to compete on a new trajectory and perhaps be re-educated. Although, I don't know if how system supports that very well.

One thing I don't understand about long-term unemployment is why you wouldn't immediately start freelancing if you couldn't find a job. Start a company, take occasional contracts, and list that on your resume. Boom, no employment gap.

Can someone explain why people don't just do that instead of complaining about "discrimination?" Heck, I myself would never hire someone who had been unemployed for a year and lacked the ability to either get a job or start their own thing.

Man that's a myopic attitude. I guess you've never been unemployed, low on money, and living in a area with few opportunities. Sure your statement is easy in the Bay Area to say, but try the middle of the country. Trying being older where no one is willing to even interview you despite your skill set being up to date. Ever start a company when you have trouble paying the mortgage? Not being surrounded by entrepreneurial friends willing to jump in with you? Can't move because no one is buying your crappy house and your kids are hungry? Put long hours into a job with old technology that went bust and now you really are out of date? There are lots of reason people wind up having trouble finding a job. Saying you wouldn't hire them because of all the challenges they might be facing is like saying poor people suck because they have no money.

Sorry to get all ranty but that is exactly what the author is talking about. I've been there a few times and it wasn't due to a lack of effort in trying to start something and casting a wide net. Good people exist even if they haven't worked in a while, it's not like they suddenly dried up and died.

I might agree with you in other fields, but not in technology. There's no good reason (provided you have the ability to work) to have a 6 month to a year gap in your resume where you have nothing to show. You don't have to start a company (in the entrepreneurial sense) to do freelance/contract work. There are tons of remote opportunities.

Even if you can't find a job during that time, there's still things you can do to improve your chances of getting employed. Start learning new technologies, attend/start a local meetup, build a website, volunteer, take online courses (many of which are free or low-cost), answer questions on StackOverflow, contribute to projects on GitHub.

The worst thing you can do is to just interview and wonder why you aren't getting any offers. Technology is a rapidly changing field, if you can't get a job with your current skill set, do something about it and show that on your resume.

At 51, I resigned from a company I had worked for 18 years when evil people bought the company. I was primarily a c++ developer. At the same time my long term relationship ended and my mom died six weeks after a cancer diagnosis.

It took six months for me to get interested in coding again. I started experimenting with Processing then developed an ios opengl based app.

I was out of work for 13 months. Now I develop in Lua, CoffeeScript, javascript, angular, php, Java, Clojure, Actionscript. All self taught while on the job. I'm thankful that someone gave me this opportunity. Otherwise I'd still probably be unemployed.

Can you provide any more details on how/why someone gave you that opportunity? Was it a friend? Friend of a friend? Did you apply for a Lua, javascript, angular, php, Java, Clojure, Actionscript position that you weren't qualified for, but did a good job of selling the transferability of your c++ skills? I'm genuinely interested in the details and any lessons you can share.

When my ios app hit the App Store, I send a message to my linkedin connections. The man who hired me was a former colleague of mine. He knew I had to ability to learn any new technology that I put my mind to.

Thank you!

The evil people who bought us were then purchased by a major Corporation who later had to write down billions of dollars because of alleged financial improprieties (cooking the books to make their stock more valuable)


The last company I worked for closed our division (and laid all of us off) solely because of politics. The irony was that we had had the highest return on investment of any division in the company for more than a decade.

I'm now stuck in a dead-end job at a small company. Our CEO has an absolutely toxic managerial style and I need to get out. Unfortunately, I'm in one of those complicated situations where it's really hard to find another job (e.g., over 40, specialized field, geographically-bound).

The CEO's toxic management style means, among other things, we're all expected to work absurdly long hours. So, I don't have a lot of time to put in to job hunting or retraining, and I have vacillated between how I should be using my precious time.

One of the things I've considered was developing an app (that scratches an itch of mine; but I've heard others complaining about similar problems here on HN, so I know I'm not alone). While your experience certainly doesn't mean that I will get an offer, it supports the premise that a single app can lead down the right road.

Well, it's not as if one can just snap one's fingers and line up a freelancing gig. The reason people don't "immediately start freelancing" is the same as the reason they don't immediately just go out and get a job.

Maybe I wasn't clear. This doesn't have to be a real company in the sense that it actually generates profit.

All you need to do is file for DBA and start accepting really low-paid gigs off a site like elancer. And yes, you can literally just snap your fingers to get those.

The point is you're not starting the company to actually succeed. You're just starting it to list something besides unemployment on your resume and hence get a real job.

I get your point, but it really isn't as easy as that.

"All you need to do is file for DBA and start accepting really low-paid gigs off a site like elancer."

If you're going to bother to be on elance/odesk/etc, you'll have a public profile. To get any decent work there, you'll have to have a good public profile, which can be tarnished by any one of the people you work for making extremely outlandish and ever-changing demands, with the threat of a 'bad review' hanging over your head.

Furthermore, there are always dozens (at least) people vying for the $100 gigs - you can't just 'snap your fingers' and get one (or several). And again, even if you could get one, it's not really the sort of work you want to do (in many cases).

Your point about labeling yourself an independent contractor is, in itself, not bad, but it's partially just a smoke screen - doesn't really help pay the bills on day 1.

And even more to the point, there are a number of companies that won't hire people who've been freelance/contract for any period of time - they see it as the person being too willing to be 'disloyal' or 'job hop away' at a moment's notice.

Labelling yourself as a contractor or independent business during unemployment period is definitely one way to explain a long gap, but it's not a silver bullet.

People have a different perspective on life when they are 20 years old as opposed to 30, 40, or 50. Elance is definitely not a way to make a living or be taken seriously by a potential employer.

I think what you're missing here is that this article isn't about the tech industry, even though it's been cross-posted here.

If you're an HR manager or a compliance officer with 20 years of industry-specific experience, there simply aren't any freelance gigs you can pick up, no matter how low-paid. And the experience you have isn't general experience at all. It's often not even industry experience. It's often experience specific to a single enterprise's internal functions.

And having a non-executive position on your resume in that world is worse than LTU.

You don't give hiring managers much credit there. You don't think most hiring managers (or their in-house recruiters) will at least google what "FooBar Associates" is, whether it's an on-going concern, whether the registered address is your home address, whether the filing date is during a time of your unemployment, etc? It takes minutes on Google to do it if you're at all suspicious. If it's from 10 years ago, I don't care. If it's your current "gig", you can be certain I'll look into it before the interview and be prepared to ask you about it in person.

Nothing wrong with consulting, and IMO nothing wrong with trying and failing to go it yourself, but if I think you're being intentionally deceitful on your CV, you'll be dropped like a rock as soon as I'm reasonably sure of that point.

I realize you only need to fool one firm to get a job, but it's not a trivial couple hour exercise to implement.

Why do you care that the registered address is a home address? Most freelancers/consultants work from home.

>whether the filing date is during a time of your unemployment, etc?

Why does this mater? Isn't the most likely time to start a consulting company during a time of unemployment?

I care only if I think the candidate was actually unemployed, not working, and trying to cover it up with a fake business.

I've actually come across that situation. It speaks to character. If you genuinely were consulting, or even trying to form a consultancy or freelance business, but ultimately failed, that's one thing. Making a fake business and doing the minimal paperwork to "make it legit" so you don't have a paper gap on your CV is quite another.

The point is you're not starting the company to actually succeed. You're just starting it to list something besides unemployment on your resume and hence get a real job.

> Priceless Career Advice.

Yes the same problems that effect older workers apply to the freelance /contract market - I was up for a 2 month gig with John Lewis but they didn't even give me an interview.

This is a naive viewpoint, and exactly the signs of someone would would be a bad talent evaluator. I will give a synopsis of my own anecdote.

I was once a PhD student, ABD at a top 15 university in math, with undergrad degrees in math and physics. I had very competitive all around scores on standardized exams, all 90th percentile and up. Upon leaving grad school, I became homeless & destitute, even depressed at times, but I still had the will to put on a good face and still had the intelligence & drive to learn & excel. After finally landing a junior dev position 3 years after grad school (after teaching myself programming), I quickly developed and took on a senior dev position in under a year.

By your stated viewpoint, you would have missed a bargain stellar talent who was open to any opportunity offered to him. Ability & willingness to learn/execute a skill isn't inextricably linked to employment periods - that is a terrible fallacy.

I'd be interested in talking more with you about your experiences. My email is in my profile. Shoot me a message sometime.

Dude, you're 20 years old. In 30 years, there's a good chance that you won't be using any of the technology that you're using today. Spend the next 20 years doing the same technology in a big company and you might find yourself with a big problem. There are other ways to screw yourself too.

The good news is that you'll be making $750,000 a year as a developer. Just hang onto that job...

> In 30 years, there's a good chance that you won't be using any of the technology that you're using today. Spend the next 20 years doing the same technology in a big company and you might find yourself with a big problem.

I don't doubt that it'd be different technology. But why would I not evolve? I'm constantly learning new languages and techniques through side projects. People who aren't constantly pushing themselves to learn more probably should get left behind.

Some long-term projects may be so complex and involving that they comsume a developer's entire cognitive capacity, leaving too little time and energy for side projects. These are the kinds of niche industry projects that can be incredibly fascinating, but "invisible" to other companies.

Heck, I myself would never hire someone who had been unemployed for a year and lacked the ability to either get a job or start their own thing.

Do you personally hire people?

Not everyone has what it takes to start a company. Conversely, not all companies want someone who has started a company. Granted, that company's culture would probably be a poor fit for you, but the fact is that not all companies regard starting a company in the same way. And re: taking contracts. . .you still must interview for contracts. And while companies may be willing to take more of a risk with contractors than with full-time employees, biases still exist during the interview process. You can be passed over for contract positions just as you can be passed over for full-time positions.

Easier said than done for most kinds of work.

Heck, I myself would never hire someone who had been unemployed for a year and lacked the ability to either get a job or start their own thing.

No matter how good you are, long-term unemployment will fuck up your confidence, especially after 50 when you're supposed to have your shit together. I've seen it happen to some really stellar people.

Financial stress poisons everything, and only a small percentage of people (maybe 5%) can prevent that sense/fear of letting their family down and being a drain on society from crushing them. Trust me on this one.

It's easy as hell to find work (consulting or full-time) when things are going well, especially in our industry. It's not so easy for people who take a fall, especially when it's unexpected.

I looked at the data supporting the article's assumption that older workers make up a greater percentage of the long term unemployed than exist in the marketplace, and it is just no that great of a difference.

Instead of blaming employers, there are other causes for long term unemployment. The first of course is a slow growing economy that would normally absorb the unemployed. The other, I believe, is the greatest cause of our long term unemployment: raising the federal minimum wage $2 back in 2008.

Without going into detail, creating an artificial floor for the price of something limits the supply. For example, Some employers won't hire someone at $7 an hour, but might at $6. Some employers could hire 5 employees at $5 an hour, but only 4 at $7.

Compete for starvation wages, ye masses!

If I may be forgiven for wool-gathering for a moment:

Many positions have quite limited returns on the right tail, that are easily reached by people of no special intelligence. If you're a Mickey D worker, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If you're a clerical worker, again, doesn't matter much. Almost anything that falls under admin, doesn't matter very much. Sales? Well, there's a certain charisma required but certainly working in most of sales doesn't require much intelligence - I know, I've done sales myself before and written procedures for it. Once computer speech is reliable I expect a lot of sales people to become unemployed outside of B2B.

Being a manager? Well, if you're in a technical firm there's a fair amount of person experience required there, but it's not hugely challenging - it's more a matter of decency and common sense. (And honestly, my faith in companies being able to reliably select for managers is 'HAHAHAHA, no.')

And the dreadful thing here is that the better you are at a skill, the harder it is for people who don't share that skill to recognise it. So unless the company's hiring procedure is geared towards finding it, i.e. they live to find the right tail, that will likely go unrecognised. The search costs increase the more skilled you become. Hence why so many crap programming jobs are advertised as 'X years experience' ; the person doing the hiring is an HR girl who doesn't know how to recognise the real deal and probably doesn't really have the time anyway.

If you're doing most any job that doesn't qualify as intellectually challenging, it doesn't matter much how smart you are to the company, they'll not profit by your intelligence. If you're doing any job where ability is poorly assessed, (which kinda screws you if the person interviewing doesn't know the job themselves,) it doesn't matter how smart you are - they'll not ask the right questions to find out.


If you want to look at how people end up LTU, I think you have to stop thinking about them as people; with hopes, dreams, and virtues. (Yes, that does make me feel sick.) That's not what they look like when you're looking at their CVs.

Think of them almost like you're picking horses in a race: Someone tells you a horse has been out of racing for a long time. Do you gamble on it?

If it was a truly exceptional horse, maybe you do. But the average unemployed person is going to be average at best. Given you can't expect them to be any better than the employed person, do you gamble on them?

Of course you don't. The horse might have been out of the game for a number of reasons. But how many of those reasons are good - and what's your gain over gambling on a horse that hasn't been out for a while? If you had more information about it than the market then you might - but your expected value of information for most jobs is going to be low due to the lack of recognised ability to leverage their intelligence in most roles.

If you're LTU, without some form of background check, that's indistinguishable from having been in prison, or having a mental breakdown, or getting sacked for a reason. What were they doing for the last six months? You don't know, but there's a higher than average chance of it being something bad.

When you have multiple candidates to choose from, and you can't easily distinguish quality given your initial investment in them, and your EVI is lower than the cost of that information, it makes sense to be risk averse on easily seen indicators. Maybe you're missing great candidates, but for most positions, what's your motivation to care?

When they're competing with people who aren't LTU, and who can do the job about as well, the company's expected return on investing in them - spending the time and money to check these things - seems likely to be negative outside of companies that can leverage exceptional individuals.

Fair enough, but the European way of firing (or lack thereof) leads to persistent underemployment. And tons of "off the books" labor. The most recently reported unemployment rate in Spain is 26.7%. Do you think a young democracy (they had a dictatorship almost into the 1980's) could actually handle a real unemployment rate that high with fomenting a revolution?

The problem older workers face is simpler. They don't fit in to the hierarchical corporate environment, which is yet another reason why that mode of organization is outdated.

If you're old and good, the supposition is that you'll resent being told what to do by someone inexperienced and probably not as skilled. If you're old and bad, then you're not a desirable hire anyway. Catch-22.

The way to fix this is to move to organizational models that don't rely so heavily on subordination and hierarchical rigidity. Conceptual hierarchy is necessary, but a fixed hierarchy of people is not.

Also, I think the VCs are to blame. They pick founders who are very young, because they're easier to take advantage of. Since it's rare that a capable 50-year-old will happily work for a 25-year-old founder, and the "boss should be older" rule traverses the hierarchy, the accepted age band at every rank becomes younger and more narrow.

I think that hiring decisions that work against older workers are based on a lot of unsubstantiated presumptions.

There's no reason to resent someone being your boss if they happen to be younger. If they are a good leader, that has nothing to do with their age differential.

I do agree that VCs have a lot to do with youth bias in startup culture, and for the reasons mentioned. It is easier to get a younger person with no external obligations to work insane hours. Why else would Facebook and Google build campuses that employees never have to leave?

I don't believe in homogenization of demographics, age and experience over the long haul. It leads to stagnation of perspective and ideas, because the experiences of the teams are so similar.

I think that people can learn from each other, both directions, and that is good for a team that has the bravery to challenge the status quo.

The problem isn't with the American way of hiring, it's with the American way of voting.

>One set of stereotypes is directly about the purported effects of age. For example, that older workers are less energetic or less able to use new technologies.

The problem is there is a lot of truth to these stereotypes.

I find at age 39 I cannot work my previous 12-16 hour days of the past, due to my sedentary lifestyle. However I make up for it by sticking to what I know will work rather then doing as much experimentation that I used to do. I get months worth of work done in weeks.

How do you think you'll perform at 50?

My very first hire was a guy who was 50. I was 24 and my manager was 30 - we were both intimidated by the thought of being the boss of someone so much older than us.

For the first two weeks of his employment, the guy was quiet. Really, really quiet. He just kept to himself and read the material I'd given him. I was starting to get worried, when one day he asked to talk to me about his tasks... He then proceeded to ask a series of incredibly pointed questions about the work we were doing and his part in it. Not only had he absorbed the details of our requirements, and our plans to meet them, but he had already anticipated the problems & challenges that we would be facing months & years down the line when it came to testing and delivery. He was completely on top of his game.

As a youngster, my approach was very different from his. Lacking experience, I would energetically tackle things head on, and deal with problems as they arose. Working with this older guy really made me appreciate that other approaches are at least as valid.

So, if someone is on top form at 40, they'll probably be even better at 50.

One of my first hires was in his 50s, too. He kept falling asleep at his desk.

Not everyone ages well. While there are certainly great employees in their 50s and 60s, you'll also find a pretty high percentage that

1. Stopped learning 20 years ago, either because they didn't force themselves out of their comfort zone or because they became experts at something and couldn't take the financial hit to do something else as a non-expert.

2. Have some sort of medical problem that affects their concentration. I work with a guy who has terrible back problems for which he has pain meds. He can go for a few hours without taking his meds and he's pretty productive then. Otherwise he can't concentrate very well and doesn't add much. Nearly everyone ends up taking blood pressure medications, and they have side effects.

3. Have ordinary age-related cognitive decline. This is the big one. If you were a genius at 30 you'll most likely be pretty smart at 50. But if you were average at 30 you're going to be below average at 50, with below average memory and reasoning skills. Everybody has cognitive decline, even in the absence of other problems. In many industries experience makes up for it. Not so much in software.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying you shouldn't hire people over 50. All I'm saying is there's truth in the stereotype.

I plan to move into something like marketing or something really silly like SharePoint administration. Scripting all day for a wage with no upside... it is hard for me to get excited. I am working on an idea, runcampaigns.com.. if I can make money with it as a lifestyle business I will be all set.

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