Society’s ‘Unemployable’ Problem, And What Can Be Done About It


In his January farewell address, I couldn’t help but notice President Obama crowing about an unemployment rate supposedly sitting at a 10-year low. That’s because, as Sean Hannity aptly pointed out on his show immediately following the address, upwards of 95 million Americans have dropped out of the labor force. In other words, the unemployment numbers Obama and others like to tout to show the efficacy of their economic policies don’t actually reflect reality.

And yet, hiring companies often can’t find the talent they need to fill their open slots.

But why?

There are many factors at play here, of course, from all-too-easy government assistance to a growing skills gap between willing workers and desperate employers.

But perhaps the most tragic yet impactful reason is an inconvenient truth that plagues us all, especially those of us who recruit and hire for a living. The fact of the matter is, whether through their own bad decisions, horrible life circumstances, or a little bit of both, a significant percentage of our population have rendered themselves, by today’s almost-universally-held standards of employment, almost completely unemployable.

And sadly, many staffing agencies are stuck in a position where, though they may often like to help people who seem to genuinely want a second chance, a significant chunk of their clients simply don’t want them.

Which brings up the question, should anyone, truly, be “unemployable?” What are the real ramifications of that term? After all, everyone’s gotta eat, right? Suppose “unemployable” means nobody, anywhere, will hire them, not even to clean toilets or shovel cow manure.

I’m not talking about lazy people who genuinely don’t want to work. Sure, there are plenty of those, and to be completely honest, I don’t care what happens to them. I’m talking about willing people who can’t find a job because of an addictive habit or a mistake in their past.

Do you really need to have a clean background to pack widgets into boxes on an assembly line? And to get even more controversial, do you need to be able to pass a drug test to sweep a sidewalk (assuming they aren’t stoned on the job, of course, but plenty of those can still ‘pass’ a drug test)?

In many cases, I do recognize that the answer is yes! There are doubtless plenty of jobs out there that do require these things, but I’d be willing to bet there are plenty of employers to whom these are a preference, not a necessity. They truly don’t mean for fellow humans to be unemployable – they just want them to be employed … somewhere else.

The problem, of course, occurs when almost everybody feels this way.

Ergo, 95 million people who have given up on looking for a job, not counted in the unemployment ranks but still putting food in their mouths, every single day.

Ergo, “unemployable.”

So, since in modern society unemployable doesn’t mean being allowed to starve, where does that food come from? The answer, as we all know, is welfare, charity, friends, family, and yes, even theft or other crimes. In other words, a way that doesn’t involve them earning their bread the Biblical way, through the sweat of their own brow.

And when they aren’t earning money, they aren’t spending it either, thus completing the sad circle of becoming a complete drain on society.

We recently had a discussion between members of our leadership team about this problem, because it’s something we experience every day. Please remember that in this case we’re talking about people who have made mistakes but genuinely want to turn their lives around, and yet have been unjustly added to the list of the “unemployable” by society.

How can we help?

Sure, we should, we can, and we do educate our clients on the law and current EEOC regulations, but they don’t have to do business with us. There are a hundred other staffing agencies willing and eager to accommodate them – if they can find the people.

And it’s a gray area. According to the EEOC, “There is no Federal law that clearly prohibits an employer from asking about arrest and conviction records.” BUT, and it’s a big one, “However, using such records as an absolute measure to prevent an individual from being hired could limit the employment opportunities of some protected groups, and thus cannot be used in this way.”

On one hand, the EEOC could potentially sue if employers screen applicants on the basis of a felony conviction, especially if they see a disparate impact in the employer’s hiring practices, but on the other hand hiring someone with a felony conviction could result in a lawsuit from any victims of the employee’s misconduct. It’s truly a no-win situation, but for some business often it’s easier, and seemingly safer, to say no to all felons rather than determine which offenses directly relate to the job at hand.

Drug testing is another tough issue. We don’t want anyone to have a drug-related accident on the job, but anyone with a week’s experience in the staffing world knows that if we could relax the drug test restrictions somewhat we’d fill a LOT more of our orders. Whether or not we SHOULD depends on the client and the job itself, of course.

But even without relaxing drug restrictions, perhaps there are ways staffing agencies can help with drug addiction, somehow help them get clean, then give them another shot in 30 days.

As for felons who just want a second chance, maybe it’s time for a paradigm shift in the employment world. I’d love to see more business follow in the footsteps of Edwins, a high-end French restaurant in Cleveland that made the news for their practice of hiring and training ex-cons.ess people make the leap from “unemployable” to productive members of society.

That’s the kind of outside-the-box thinking that changes lives instead of fostering dependency.