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How Much Blame Do the Jobless Bear for Joblessness?

How Much Blame Do the Jobless Bear for Joblessness?
Image credit: AP

The problem with unemployment may well not rest with the employers but with the unemployed.

The monthly reading on small-business optimism from the National Federation of Independent Business showed slightly more optimism among business owners in December, though still far below rates in more vibrant economies.

But, tucked beneath the headline number was an interesting commentary on the American labor market. We already know, from the Labor Department, that the employment situation in the U.S. is awful. Not only are people not finding jobs, but more and more are simply dropping out of the workforce. The labor-force participation rate, which measures the percentage of people who could work and do, is at its lowest level since 1978.

Related: Why Our Job Market Is Dying Before Our Eyes

The general theme has been that there are no jobs to be had. Companies are only out for profit, and choose to hoard their cash rather than employ workers. If only these "greedy" corporations would add workers, so the argument goes, joblessness would ease. (And then, no doubt, we can start arguing more about how people are not paid enough.)

But there is data to suggest capitalism isn't working against the worker. The worker is. The NFIB's report showed a strong willingness on the part of independent business owners to hire. Owners surveyed added an average of 0.24 workers per business in December. That might appear to be small (and macabre, if taken literally), but it is huge. The NFIB hasn't seen so much hiring among smaller businesses since February 2006.

What's more, that figure should be bigger. Forty-eight percent of owners said they hired or tried to hire in the past three months. The "Help Wanted" sign is clearly up.

Yet, 38 percent of employers reported they could not fill their openings because of a lack of good candidates. This is significant, something NFIB notes in its commentary: "This is not just a 'skills' issue, but one of poor attitudes, work habits, timeliness, appearance and expectations, especially among the applicants for lower skill jobs."

Pray on that a second. Employers around the country have openings and want to hire. And they are finding people who have the backgrounds and skills to be parts of their organizations. And yet the potential workers are failing to impress, are showing up unkempt or exhibiting behaviors and attitudes that make them unattractive to the people who could give them gainful employ.

Related: Entrepreneurship, Not Socialism, Is the Answer to Our Economic Problems

It stretches credulity. A career is a transformative event, particularly here in America. You use your skills, whether in mind or body, and apply them to help an enterprise meet its goals. In return, you are given compensation, in salary, wages and benefits, which in turn allow you to make personal economic decisions, manage your life and support the people you love. The fact that so many are not working in America is shameful, but what may be more shameful is that, at least according to those trying to hire, people are making a conscious choice to not do everything in their power to get the jobs available to them.

And make no mistake, if 38 percent of those who hire are saying the candidates before them have bad attitudes, are showing up to interviews late, or are not even physically presentable, then any blame falls on those trying to get jobs, not those giving them.

It may be worth an honest debate over the reasons why. For younger workers, we are already hearing calls that requirements to work for pay be abolished, with the government providing pay, jobs, security and even land. This move toward a more socialist society is growing -- and not surprising when one considers that 49.2 percent of Americans now get some sort of benefit check from the government.

The safety net was supposed to be just that: an opportunity to bounce back after you fell off the highwire. Now it is a hammock, a permanent way to receive compensation, at the cost of taxpayers who often walk that same wire, spinning plates and juggling balls along the way, to support themselves. 

What is being lost is that free markets thrive off the power of the individual. Yes, people run into hard times. Yes, they struggle. But the ability to bounce back and set your own destiny is at the foundation of our economic system. Those individuals contribute to our economy, using their skills and determination to help create products and services that other individuals choose to buy. Individuals need to believe they are capable to succeed, and sometimes take risks to meet their personal financial goals, for the system to blossom. Some of these individuals take even more chances and start businesses, and, when those grow, they go out and hire other people, easing unemployment. In a word, that's entrepreneurship.

Sadly, the economy can't work if the individual is not even taking the step to be prepared for a job interview. Businesses can't make candidates more attractive, nor can government programs. It is entirely in the destiny of that one person. 

So next time there's a discussion about unemployment, flip the script. If you want to talk about the rights of the worker or the plight of the jobless, perhaps a short gaze in the mirror is in order. It might give the clearest view of one of the true problems.

Related: Preaching the Morality of Capitalism

Ray Hennessey is Editorial Director of Entrepreneur.com.

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