Despite the threat of recession, the U.S. economy continues to run at a high clip, and companies — desperate for workers — are lowering the qualifications they've previously demanded of new employees. But even so, they are finding that much of the pool of long-term jobless Americans first require training and help in the very basics: being on time, organizing reliable transportation, paying for a place to live and funding any required uniform.
What's happening: Cities across the U.S. are stepping in with "life and employment skills" classes and assistance for Americans who for years and decades have been entirely left out of the economy — former convicts, ex-drug addicts and others at the fringes.
The big picture: One of the major factors animating the last two or three years of political turbulence in the U.S. has been the economic sidelining of millions of Americans as jobs have moved overseas or been automated away.
But this narrative leaves out an invisible swath of the country that is absent from the primary Labor Department statistics entirely — tens of millions of long-term unemployed, who have been jobless for a year or more. For years, company executives and government officials have routinely described these people as largely beyond help — typically, economists have said they are too old to be retrained for new work, too drug-addled to pass blood tests or disqualified because of a prison record.
- The dire need for new workers has turned this reality on its head.
In Denver, John Locke, a program manager for Kiewit, a major construction company, tells Axios that the firm is looking to hire up to 600 people by next summer to rebuild a 10-mile section of Interstate 70.
- But the city has a 3% unemployment rate, much tighter than the national 3.9% figure, making it extremely difficult to find workers.
- This has left companies like Kiewit open to hiring people who come with a lot of "barriers" to working in a traditional job — like financial problems that prevent them from having a regular place to live, transportation or child care.
About a year and a half ago, the city and state launched a program called WorkNow, an association that organizes all of these services. It can help find money to pay emergency rent, provide a pair of boots, set up shuttles to a construction site so workers can be on time, and find child care.
Mara Picazo, an apprentice for a contractor on the Interstate 70 project, is a 29-year-old mother of two young children who was earning just $9.25 an hour as a flagger when managers suggested she apply to be an apprentice for a regular job. Three years later, she is earning $22 an hour and is about to graduate. When she does, she will receive a raise to $30 an hour.
- But before getting there, she had "problems with money. WorkNow helped me pay for books — they paid $400. They helped me buy tools," Picazo said.
In Washington, D.C., Henry Schultz tells a similar story. He is an adviser to the Excel Automotive Institute, which teaches auto mechanics largely to ex-convicts.
- Last year, 12 young men and women finished the course, and nine of them passed a grueling electrical certification course.
- Later this month, they will continue and learn to fix brakes, steering and suspension systems.
- When they are done, Ford has agreed to hire them as entry-level mechanics, Schultz said. The average entry-level pay is about $16.50 an hour, he said.
But before any get started, they have to take a 48-hour "life and employment skills" course carried out by an agency called Thrive, which is similar to the Denver program and teaches how to be on time, carry oneself, write a resume and so on.
- Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed, said that a test will come when the economy slows down: "Do they keep their jobs or are they the first to be laid of, and if they are laid off, how much of those skills translate to the next job?"