WASHINGTON — Bill Lewis was under more pressure than most new hires when he began a job in information technology last year in Monroe, Conn. Jobless for a year, he had eight weeks to persuade his employer to keep him and pay his salary.
A commercial mailer had offered Lewis something usually associated with actors or dancers: An audition.
It came through a nonprofit, Platform to Employment, that covered Lewis’ pay in a program that targets a major scar of the Great Recession: The 2.6 million Americans who have been jobless for over six months. Many have long felt ignored by employers who assume their skills, drive or technological know-how have faded.
Platform to Employment provides job-search training before arranging subsidized auditions. This eliminates any risk to employers while giving the jobless an opening to prove themselves.
Evidence from companies that have used Platform have raised hopes for people who have endured prolonged unemployment. Some have impressed and surprised employers with their adaptability.
Lewis’ employer, Kevin Kuligowski of Creative Mailing Solutions, discovered he was both proficient in mail-management software and knowledgeable about postal regulations — a rare combination. When the audition ended, Kuligowski hired Lewis.
The audition cost Kuligowski nothing. And he could have cut Lewis loose afterward. “Let me see what he can do” is how Kuli- gowski thought of the audition.
Lewis, 42, having built a nearly 20-year career before his audition, wrote a software application that saved the company a step in its packing process.
On Friday, the government reported that U.S. employers added 223,000 jobs in April, a solid gain. The unemployment rate fell to 5.4 percent from 5.5 percent in March, the lowest rate since May 2008.
But since the recession officially ended nearly six years ago, economists have pointed with alarm to the plight of the long-term unemployed. Though their ranks have declined, there are still more people who have been jobless for longer than six months than during either of the previous two recessions, in 1991 and 2001.
Studies find that those employers are less likely to interview candidates with long spells of unemployment, even when their qualifications are the same as for the short-term unemployed.
Some who have stopped looking for work have instead sought disability benefits or other government aid. And fewer Americans working tends to mean weaker economic growth.
Research has also found that prolonged unemployment worsens the health of many job seekers and their families. One study found that people who were unemployed for prolonged periods lost about 1.5 years of life expectancy compared with workers who weren’t laid off.
About 27 percent of the short-term unemployed find jobs each month, government data show. For the long-term unemployed, only about 12 percent do.
Joe Carbone, who launched the Platform program in 2011, said roughly 80 percent of participants have landed auditions and that 90 percent of those have been offered permanent jobs. Since June, the program has been funded by $3.5 million from Connecticut to serve 500 long-term unemployed.
Platform, based in Bridgeport, Conn., has made just a tiny dent in the problem. But its approach is spreading, fueled by private donations and government grants. So far, it’s placed 800 people in jobs in 17 cities, the group says. Nonprofits in Nevada, Indiana and Colorado have received federal money to set up identical systems.
Research by Barbara Sianesi, an economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London, has found that in Sweden, subsidized tryouts were the most successful among six methods for getting the long-term jobless back to work.
One reason, Sianesi says, is that auditions typically put people in jobs that companies need to fill, unlike jobs at public agencies that are sometimes created just to employ the jobless. This makes it more likely that an employee will be kept on once a subsidized tryout ends.
The auditions contrast with the maddeningly impersonal job searches that most of the long-term unemployed endure. Online job boards and resume-screening software have made it harder for people to explain gaps in their work histories.
Before receiving tryouts, Platform participants are tutored on LinkedIn and other social media, which might not have existed the last time they sought work.