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Economy’s Sticky Problem: Long-Term Unemployment

Let’s say you’re the boss, and you have an opening for a widget maker.

Are you going to choose the person who has been making widgets at your competitor’s plant every day for the past two years, or the one who’s made a lot of widgets in the past — but hasn’t had a job of any kind for the past two years?

Economists say one big problem with the nation’s weak economic recovery is that too many employers have the luxury of choosing the person who’s already making widgets — and that’s leaving behind those who are already out of a job.

“If you’re not working — and you’re not improving your credentials — it’s harder to find a job. That’s just simply reality,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist with Naroff Economic Advisors.

President Barack Obama met with the chief executives of many large companies Friday to address one of the most enduring problems of the Great Recession: how to get those long-term unemployed Americans back to work. The effort comes as the unemployment rate has been steadily improving, hitting a new low of 6.7 percent in December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The question of how to get the long-term unemployed back to work is complex because there are so many variables.

A person who has been out of the job market a long time may have rusty skills or skills that are too specific for the job available, or may command a higher salary than most employers are willing to pay. In addition, the weak housing market has meant that some people can’t afford to move for a new job, curtailing job prospects.

Naroff expects that long-term unemployment will ease as the unemployment rate drops and employers no longer have the luxury of being inundated with resumes for every job posting.

Still, the recovery has been slow and stubborn, and that means the long-term unemployed may need to continue to have something that is probably in short supply right now: Patience.