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Long-term Unemployed Face Challenge As Economy Improves

WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

A federal program to provide jobless benefits to the long-term unemployed has expired, and efforts to renew it are deadlocked in the Senate.  But a shift in federal policy as a result of the bipartisan budget approved this week could be good news for job-seekers this year

A stalemate continued Friday in the U.S. Senate over the details of a deal that would extend weekly unemployment payments to laid-off workers who have exhausted their state-provided benefits. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey is among those backing a plan to renew the emergency jobless benefits program until the end of March.

"So, let us not punish those who are the victims and continue to be the victims of a Wall Street collapse," Markey said recently on the floor of the U.S. Senate

About 1.3 million unemployed people—60,000 in Massachusetts-- were receiving benefits under the federal program when it ended. The number is growing weekly as more people exhaust state benefits and can’t find work.

Unemployment has remained stubbornly high since the Great Recession, according to economist Robert Nakosteen of the Isenberg School at UMass Amherst.

" What is most disturbing about it is that a large portion of those unemployed are long-term unemployed--those out of work six months or longer--and the longer they stay out of work the less likely they are to find work."

Nakosteen and other economists who track the Massachusetts economy blamed sequestration—the across-the-board federal spending cuts—for putting an anchor on job growth last year.  Massachusetts was especially hard hit because of the state’s high number of defense contractors, research institutes, and universities that rely on federal dollars.

The bipartisan budget approved this week in Congress rolls back sequestration and Nakosteen says there are other reasons to be optimistic about job growth including an improved housing market in Massachusetts and rising exports to Europe.

" A lot of things are happening that suggest 2014 is going to be a considerably better year than what we've had since the recession ended."

Getting the long-term unemployed back to work is going to be a challenge, according to Kevin Lynn, manager of business services at Future Works Career Center in Springfield.

"I think a significant number of people have given up. There is going to have to be an investment in skills training to get them back on the payrolls again."

Lynn and other employment specialists stress job seekers need to network and keep skills current with what employers demand.

" There seems to be less of a willingness on the business side to train people to the level of skills they need. We at the Career Center are trying to push more on-the-job training opportunities. It is a strategy to help bridge the ( skills) gap."

The highest  number of job postings at the career  center are in the fields of health care, financial services, construction trades and manufacturing.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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