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Minneapolis — After a health insurance company laid him off in 2012, John Columbus spent the next 20 months answering as many questions about gaps in his résumé as about his years of employment.

Then a friend steered him to U.S. Bank, which was piloting a White House initiative for hiring the long-term unemployed. “There are some companies that ask you for any involuntary termination,” Columbus said. “Those companies never call back. U.S. Bank looked at me as a whole person with 30 years of experience.”

If Columbus, 53, embodies the woes of Americans out of work for more than six months, the Obama administration hopes a new hiring drill at Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank helps the nation address an ugly legacy of the Great Recession.

Some recent research shows that businesses would rather hire people with no experience than experienced workers who have been out of work for a long time. Using recommendations from a handbook drafted by Deloitte Consulting and the Rockefeller Foundation, U.S. Bank is searching for ways to give a fairer shake to those job seekers. The handbook “increases knowledge of conscious or unconscious bias” against the unemployed, explained U.S. Bank human resources chief Jennie Carlson.

This consciousness-raising has yielded new employees like Columbus, whose extended jobless status and age often left him drowning on the bottom of the applicant pool. The bank’s work drew the praise of a senior White House official.

“U.S. Bank has taken an active leadership role in this initiative, including partnering with peer companies to engage other Twin Cities employers to embrace these practices,” Byron Auguste, deputy director of the National Economic Council, told the Star Tribune in an email.

Whether projects like the one U.S. Bank piloted can work nationally “depends on whether employers are doing this (discrimination) unintentionally or whether they believe it produces a better pool of workers,” said Joe Ritter, economics professor at the University of Minnesota.

There has been progress. The ranks of the long-term unemployed have shrunk by 900,000 since the White House hiring initiative kicked off in January. But that is not yet enough to address the drag of long-term unemployment on the economy. In mid-2009, people out of work more than 27 weeks accounted for over 40 percent of the nation’s total unemployed. Last month, more than five years into economic recovery, the long-term unemployed still represented almost one-third of the country’s jobless. Today, roughly 3 million Americans have been out of work more than 27 weeks.

U.S. Bank now partners with nonprofits and government agencies to identify specific long-term unemployed individuals who might make good employees, Carlson said. The bank also steers experienced applicants who fail to get hired on their first try to other openings.

In mid-October, Carlson met with officials at the White House to discuss ways to broadly distribute handbooks to the long-term unemployed and the businesses that might hire them. She also talked about how companies that piloted the new hiring model can help integrate it into America’s business culture.

Columbus knows all about barriers. He has been laid off four times in his IT career. With each succeeding layoff, the difficulty finding work increased.

He went back to college in 2008 to complete a degree program. It didn’t seem to matter. Because of his job history and increasing age, the pickings stayed slim or got slimmer. Once he’d been out of work for a certain period, it was as if he was tainted.

“They grill you,” he said. “ ‘Why can’t you find a job?’ ”

The U.S. Bank job was no slam dunk either, despite the company’s new focus on helping the long-term unemployed. Columbus worked with several of the bank’s recruiters. He made it to the final selection process for posts as a project manager and an audit services manager, but lost out on both.

Close to running out of money to pay his bills, he applied for something else. The recruiter working with him pointed him away from that job to another one in risk management auditing. It turned out to be a perfect fit for his skill set.

“It was not three strikes and you’re out,” Columbus said of his new employer’s approach.

It can’t be, explained Carlson, if the idea is to get people back to work who haven’t had a job for a long time.

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