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For unemployed, stigma is another hurdle to pass

Craig Guerdat was a technical writer but hasn't been able to land a full-time job in his field for 2 1/2 years. He suspects one reason he's been passed over again and again is that employers don't want to hire someone who doesn't have a job.

The 64-year-old Raleigh, N.C., resident is not paranoid. Experts say being unemployed remains a disadvantage and a stigma even though mass layoffs indiscriminately swept through corporate divisions, entire companies and vulnerable industries.

An advocacy group for workers surveyed online job postings last year and found more than 100 companies that want only applicants who are currently employed.

And it's worse for those who have been without a full-time job for longer than a few months -- a Catch-22 that has not been rendered obsolete by the sheer numbers of the long-term unemployed. For the past two years, more than 40 percent of the nation's unemployed have been out of a job for 27 weeks or more, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"It's something no one talks about, but it's out there," said Cindy Waite, president and CEO of Accentuate Staffing in Raleigh. "It's the perception their skills are lacking, they're not trying hard enough to get a job, and that A-players would be getting jobs."

Jim Lind, 59, a Raleigh programmer and project manager, has been out of a job since December 2008. Lind, who pulled down a $96,000 annual salary before bonuses, said he's seen the evidence firsthand.

"I have been in two face-to-face interviews where they told me it's a negative," Lind said. "They want to know, 'What have you been doing in the last three years? Have you been in jail?' I've actually been asked that."

As more Americans become mired in long-term unemployment, some argue that screening out jobless applicants is a form of discrimination and should be outlawed.

After the National Employment Law Project publicized the issue last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held hearings in Washington, as did a U.S. Senate panel in December.

New Jersey passed a law banning the practice, and a dozen states and Congress are considering similar legislation.

"It's disconcerting," said Shannon Cook, a Raleigh-based client liaison for Insperity, a human resources services firm in Houston. "They're doing their own company a disservice. They're limiting the pool and the opportunity to find the best person."

Still, some experts defend businesses' screening out of jobless applicants.

Duke University economics professor John Coleman suspects the practice is becoming more common as companies are overwhelmed with candidates who may be applying not because they're genuinely interested but because they're desperate.

"Why would a company be prejudicial in that regard? I can't imagine them making an irrational choice," Coleman said. "If you're currently employed, you might be more selective. If you're not employed, you might take anything."

Guerdat concedes that if the tables were turned and he was doing the hiring, he'd be curious about an applicant's jobless status.

"It's a potential stigma if it's not addressed well," Guerdat said. "But I think it can be finessed."

It's also simplistic to blame long-term unemployment on joblessness itself; the causes are many.

Harry Davis, an economist at Appalachian State University, noted that some are in jobless limbo because they were cast off from shrinking industries, such as construction and manufacturing. Some may have prolonged their jobless tenure because of extensions in monthly unemployment benefits to nearly two years. Age discrimination is likely to be a factor, too, while technology gains let businesses do the same amount of work with fewer people.

And it cannot be discounted that some who go for more than a year without finding work are simply not impressive candidates.

On the other hand, the unemployed come with their own assets: They can be willing, available and cheap.

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Use interview wisely

Workplace experts say that being unemployed need not be a crippling liability during job interviews, but applicants should come prepared with convincing answers.

A strong presentation conveys energy and initiative in both career and personal life. The wrong answer will suggest that the applicant is pessimistic, lethargic and not engaged.

According to some recruiters, employers don't want to hear that looking for a job is a full-time job leaving you with no time for anything else.

Interviewers will get a better vibe if you've been taking classes, getting certifications, teaching classes, active in professional groups or taking leadership roles in volunteer groups, several recruiters said.