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This is what it feels like to be unemployed for years

The line of long-term unemployed is still long, and their skills are slipping.
The line of long-term unemployed is still long, and their skills are slipping.
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"It wasn't that the skills were going; it's that my memory wasn't as good," says Brian Hatfield, a 33-year-old from Escondido, California. After a recent, one-year bout of unemployment, he says he had forgotten a few minor, basic skills from his former administrative and retail jobs. But it wasn't those that troubled him — he found himself getting duller and slower in day-to-day conversations.

He might not use the term, but Hatfield is describing a phenomenon economists call skill erosion, the tendency of the long-term unemployed to lose their skills (and therefore their value) in the labor market. Even while the headline unemployment rate falls, those who have been out of work for a long time, sometimes years, are feeling the lingering damage of the recession on a personal level. And even while the number of unemployed falls, the share who are out of work six months or more remains abnormally high.

The exact nature of this erosion is something economists' datasets don't really explore. So I spoke to several long-term unemployed people and listened to their stories. These are four accounts that illustrate skill erosion, from the point of view of the people actually losing the skills. It's much more subtle than forgetting your old job skills — and even when those skills do go, they often can easily come back with new work — rather, it can be a slow creep of falling out of step with new technology, falling out of touch with people in your industry, and falling out of practice of working with others. Here's a necessarily anecdotal, but broad-based, look at the human element behind the next great economic challenge.

The skill loss can be subtle

Lon Feil says he has been out of graphic design work for a year and a half now. The 48-year-old from Lisbon, Iowa, last worked in that field designing standardized tests for Pearson, where he spent nine years. He says he eventually decided the job was a bad fit for him — he wanted to do more creative work — and because he didn't like it, his performance suffered, and he was terminated. He's looking for a new graphic design job now, but having been away from it for so long, he can feel himself losing the ability to use the basic tools of his former job.

"It's been a couple of years, and I used to use this software on a daily basis," he says, referring to Adobe programs like InDesign and Photoshop. "You forget things. There's all the hotkey shortcuts and just how the software works. And yeah, I definitely feel like i'm losing some of that," he says. He knows if he's given a chance, he can relatively quickly relearn some shortcuts and pick up a program again. But the longer he's out of work, the more he could forget, and the more new software versions might come out that will make it just a step or two harder for him to learn.

Today, Feil is what economists would call underemployed — he has started working part-time at Home Depot, work that neither gives him enough hours nor uses his full skill set.

That keeps him busy and makes ends meet, but it doesn't allow him to keep up the skills that would allow him to become fully employed. Now that he's out of the graphic design field and only working part-time, he says he's hesitant to spend on the programs he once used every day.

"They're super-expensive, and I guess if I got some kind of freelance work I'd consider getting that at home," he says. "But right now it's not worth it for me to get it."

Feil says he's applied to around 200 jobs at this point, but he's had no luck yet.

"I have times where I get pretty down about it and listless. You can only get up in the morning and check the job sites so many times," he says. "I'm really anxious to get back to work; that's for sure."

It's not just about losing skills — it's about losing touch

When she was out of work for almost a year, Melinda Kozel says she felt some of her skills slip, but in different ways from Feil's.

"I didn't have any structure. I felt like I had no time. ... I definitely felt less organized," she says.

In September 2013, Kozel left her job as a program coordinator for an arts organization in northeast Nebraska. She says she left voluntarily — she had been living and working hours away from her husband, in Omaha, and they finally decided they were tired of the long-distance relationship. But after a few initial promising interviews, her search ended up taking nearly a year. Losing skills like organization and time management was bad, she says, but what may have hurt her more was that she fell out of the loop.

"I definitely didn't feel like I was a part of the arts circle anymore. ... I felt like I didn't have any connection anymore."

She finally found a job in August, working as the manager of an arts library. Getting that job involved forcing herself to start networking all over again, something she had stopped doing. Getting herself back into the networking game, she says, was hard, but it's what eventually found her the job she has today.

"I think it was a thing that took time to really kind of get my face out there," she says. "I know within the last couple months before I found the job I didn't want to go out anymore."

Being depressed about being out of work makes it worse

Hatfield is proof that getting out of long-term unemployment can be bumpy, at best. Since mid-2011, when he quit his administrative job with the city of Huntington Beach to move to San Marcos, where his girlfriend had gotten a job, he says he has had two bouts of long-term unemployment, totaling nearly two years. Mixed into that unemployment, he has had a short stint at a printing company, held a part-time job at Bed Bath & Beyond, and helped a friend launch a failed iPad app. In March 2014, after a nearly one-year stretch of unemployment, he finally found the job he has today: an administrative assistant position at a company that makes air quality monitors.

Hatfield can list a few things he forgot how to do when he was out of work — making labels, performing a mail merge, "the lingo from Bed Bath & Beyond" — but he says many of the problems were mental.

"When I was at work again and speaking and being in conversations, and having new information I had to remember, I was realizing I was just sharper and quicker than I was when I was just unemployed and bummed out about being unemployed," he says.

This is why long-term unemployment can be so insidious: it's not just that you get discouraged from being out of work or that employers might be discriminating against you. Rather, you fall out of practice of talking and working with others, which doesn't exactly increase your chances of getting a job when you do find an interested employer.

It doesn't happen to everyone

It has been at least three years since Susan Cox-Smith, a 52-year-old from Greensboro, North Carolina, was last fully employed. Until 2011, she worked as an interactive producer for online course curriculums at UNC-Greensboro. Today, she says, she does some informal work, teaching six to 10 classes per week at local gyms (at around $20 per class) and supporting her husband's consulting business.

"In my opinion, the 'erosion of skills' trope is a load of BS," she says. "Everyone I know, especially older workers, has done everything they can to add to their toolboxes and improve their qualifications."

Cox-Smith has been unemployed and underemployed for more than three years, but she has been busy that whole time, taking online courses, doing the occasional contract job, volunteering, and blogging. Because of that, she says she hasn't felt her skills erode — most of the unemployed people she knows, she says, stayed sharp by simply never having stopped moving.

"Most professions genuinely rely more on general experience and an ability to apply old knowledge to new problems, not learning completely new programs and processes and discarding old ones," she says. All of her activity, whether it's at the gym or in online classes, may have helped her maintain that "general experience" and upkeep her basic job skills. The same goes, she says, for others who have been out of work.

"No one I know is sitting back and waiting for their old job to come back," she says.

Indeed, she is ready for a change herself. Cox-Smith would like to move into a new area — working for a non-profit organization that advocates for a cause she believes in, like women's rights. But even though she doesn't feel she has lost her skills, she still has barriers to finding new work. Her resume has a long list of activities in a wide range of fields, but also an unfinished college degree and a full-time work experience that ends in 2011.

"I believe I am essentially invisible to potential employers as my education, experience, work history and skill set are confusing to them," she says. "I am too great an unknown."

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