WASHINGTON -- Confronting the persistent joblessness that has marred the economic recovery, President Barack Obama won commitments Friday from more than 300 companies to reach out in their hiring to the nearly 4 million Americans who have been unemployed for half a year or more.
"It's a cruel Catch-22," Obama said at a White House event with CEOs, job training groups and advocates for the unemployed. "The longer you're unemployed, the more unemployable you may seem." He called that "an illusion" because, he said, such workers are often better qualified and better educated than workers who just recently lost their jobs.
In addition to convening CEOs and getting their hiring pledges, Obama also signed a presidential memo directing federal agencies not to discriminate against those long-term unemployed workers in its own hiring practices.
As a percentage of the total labor force, the number of people who have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks -- 3.9 million -- is the highest in four decades. The number doesn't include Americans who have been looking for so long that they have given up. For policymakers, the number of such workers is particularly troublesome when it persists even as the economy grows.
Behind the numbers are the faces of unemployed machinists like Vincent Gates in Cincinnati or cashier Bill Paci in Philadelphia or Barbara Greene of Colorado Springs, Colo., who worked for decades as a medical receptionist before becoming jobless.
"At this point, at 44, I'm trying to get a skilled trade," Gates said. "I feel like they don't look at me as a good long-term investment" for training.
Paci, who was laid off in September from a cashier job, believes a higher minimum wage or federal spending on civic improvement and infrastructure projects would better help the unemployed and wonders why any CEO would feel any obligation to Obama to hire the long-term unemployed.
"He could say that, but there's no pressure on these people to do that," he said.
Greene, 59, who has been out of work for almost a year, said the president's push doesn't make up for the looming expiration of her unemployment benefits due to congressional gridlock.
"I think he's blowing smoke," she said. "I don't see anybody, Congress or anybody, who wants to do anything about it."
Obama's event and his memo-signing illustrated the types of targeted, non-legislative measures he promised to undertake to expand economic opportunity during his State of the Union address this week. Obama has declared 2014 a year of action for his administration, but his chances of winning legislative victories are slim in an election year and with a divided Congress.
"Just because you've been out of work for a while does not mean that you are not a hard worker," Obama said. "Just means you had bad luck or you were in the wrong industry or you lived in a region of the country that's catching up a little slower than others in the recovery."
Even the Obama administration concedes that the outreach to companies has its limits.
"This is down payment," Labor Secretary Tom Perez said. "When you're talking about Fortune 100 companies, you're talking about force multipliers and when you talk about force multipliers, you're talking about helping thousands of people."
The Obama administration has been working for months to exact commitments from companies to ensure their hiring practices don't discriminate against long-term job-seekers. Among the CEOs at the White House Friday were top executives from eBay, Morgan Stanley, Boeing, Marriott International and McDonalds.
Among other companies taking part: Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and 21st Century Fox. Gene Sperling, who heads the White House's National Economic Council, said he emailed the conservative business mogul about the initiative, and Murdoch personally wrote back to say he supported it.
Steps that firms committed to include doing away with candidate-screening methods that disqualify applicants based on their current employment status. It also means ensuring that job ads don't discourage unemployed workers from applying.
The Obama administration will direct $150 million in grants toward partnership programs that retrain, mentor and place unemployed workers.
Erick Varela is among the lucky ones. The former Army combat infantryman had been unemployed and homeless, living occasionally out of his car in California until he found a training program sponsored by Pacific Gas & Electric. He described his initial job search as a series of interviews "and the first question out of the mouth was, 'Why is there a date break in your employment?'"
Today, after a 16-week training period, he is working as an apprentice electrician and is five months away from becoming a journeyman electrician. PG&E was among those who signed up to the White House efforts and agreed to expand the training program it already has underway.
Varela, as one of the success stories, got to introduce the president.