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Low unemployment doesn't mean it's easy to find a job. Here's why

Low unemployment numbers don’t mean it’s easy to find a job. Adobe Stock

SALT LAKE CITY — The latest employment figures from the Department of Labor, released last week, suggest encouraging news for U.S. job seekers, with employers adding 263,000 jobs in April and an unemployment rate at the lowest level in 50 years.

Despite the promising possibilities, however, many still can't get hired.

One reason, according to a recent Brookings Institution report, is that the longer a person is jobless, the less likely they are to find a job.

"The short-term unemployed (less than five weeks) are more than three times as likely to find a job in a given month as people who have been unemployed for a year or more," the Brookings study finds.

The current job-finding rate is slightly lower than would be expected considering such favorable Labor Department numbers, due in part to the influence of the Great Recession on today's hiring market. The Brookings analysis shows that the decrease in hiring during that period caused people to be unemployed for a longer time.

As a result, Brookings explains, "more of the unemployed have been so for longer, leaving them with diminished chances of re-entering employment."

Even for those who have been working, J.T. O'Donnell, founder and CEO of Work It Daily, says a seasoned employee trying to transition to a new position could face a different barrier to getting hired: overqualification.

With Americans 55 and older continuing in the workforce long past traditional retirement ages as well as other workers looking for career changes after 20 years, many job seekers find themselves being told they bring too much to an opening.

The "overqualified" label is discouraging for job seekers because it results in unemployment. And data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that people in the 55 and older age bracket remain out of work longer than their younger peers — an average of 37 weeks compared with 25 weeks for the 35 to 44 age group.

While O'Donnell suggests job seekers present themselves as generalists with a lot to learn, the reality of being too experienced for a potential position is a common reason for employers to pass on a candidate.

“Many companies choose to reskill current employees rather than hire and train new ones because it’s more cost-effective. ”

Retraining can offer a solution to workers being laid off or passed over because of technological advancements and a changing economy, according to the Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration.

However, the results are mixed on whether or not retraining is a successful venture.

In an article for Forbes, William Dunkelberg, chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Business, explains that the benefits of training new employees are significant, but the costs can be as well. This is especially difficult for small businesses to surmount.

Additionally, 33 percent of employers report difficulty with finding time to train new employees, while 18 percent report difficulty with the financial costs of onboarding.

And for the older population, retraining doesn't always work, Business Insider reports.

Many companies choose to reskill current employees rather than hire and train new ones because it's more cost-effective. This means older workers who left a job at a high skill level may be overlooked because they aren't currently employed.

As for overall training programs, government-sponsored options are minimal at the state level, and only one program to retrain older workers is offered at the federal level, according to Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, director of upskilling policy at the National Skills Coalition. Seniors must have an income below the poverty level to qualify for it.

“This lack of exposure to the professional world can leave many well-qualified graduating students with few options, even in a favorable market.”

And what about employment prospects for new college grads?

Alfred Lubrano reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer that if a student doesn't have a college-educated network to leverage, as many first-generation graduating students do not, the prospects are bleak.

"First-gen students suffer not only from a lack of financial means," says Lubrano. "Parents who graduated from college and landed professional work can offer their offspring advice on what courses to study to snag higher-paying jobs, or how to schmooze a professor who'll help launch a career."

This lack of exposure to the professional world can leave many well-qualified graduating students with few options, even in a favorable market.

Writing for The Week, business and economics correspondent Jeff Spross offers a caveat about a low unemployment rate in the U.S.:

"The benefits of America's recovery (are not) being shared equally: national unemployment … is 4.2 percent for Hispanics and 6.7 percent for black Americans. … The portion of prime working-age Americans without jobs, and the percentage … that have been long-term, remain high."

In addition to the uneven distribution of opportunity for American workers, Fred Payne, commissioner of Indiana's Department of Workforce Development, told the Dubois County Herald that a low unemployment rate produces distinct problems for employers:

"(T)he unique challenge is that (employers) are looking for employees to fill specific jobs. And they're looking for skilled employees."