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Long-Term Unemployment Slowly Shrinking

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Though the job market remains bleak, there is one small bright spot: Economists say the ranks of the long-term unemployed are beginning to shrink.

The number of those out of work for 27 weeks or more fell 13% to 5.4 million in May, from 6.2 million a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate has been choppy in recent months, hovering over 5 million, but experts say there’s a long-term trend emerging. “It’s finally coming down – there’s no question about it,” says Patrick O’Keefe, director of economic research at J.H. Cohn consultants in Roseland, N.J.

Any improvement for those unemployed long-term — which still account for 42.8% of the jobless – is a good sign for the overall economy, analysts say. The longer people remain unemployed, the more likely they are to lose their workplace skills and become less employable, says Philip Noftsinger, an expert on employment  at CBIZ Payroll in Roanoke, Va. This phenomenon can create deeper structural problems even as the economy improves, he says. When the recession ended in 2009, long-term unemployment was 29%. “There’s a long way to go,” he says. “More people may getting impatient and taking lesser positions to get back into the workforce.”

At best, economists say these figures show the job market is stabilizing. The number of Americans filing for jobless benefits dropped slightly last week, according to the U.S. Labor Department released Thursday; initial jobless claims fell by 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 387,000 in the week ended June 16. But the Federal Reserve said Wednesday it expects unemployment rate to remain stagnant in the 8% to 8.2% for at least the rest of this year.

The improving long-term unemployment numbers may also be partly attributable to exasperated workers retiring or seeking advanced degrees, experts say. “There will be a percentage of people who go back to school or those nearing retirement who stop looking for work,” O’Keefe says. John Williams, a statistician and economist, says the government underestimates the long-term jobless. Since 1994, the federal data only defines discouraged workers as those who have been looking for work within the last year. “There are a lot more people who have given up looking for work for a longer period than that,” he says.

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