The job, posted on Indeed.com, seemed promising - an opening in Texas for a quality engineer with experience in dimensional gauging and benchtop test equipment, offering up to $62,000 a year.

But the advertisement included a caveat: "Client will not consider/review anyone not currently employed regardless of the reason."

That kind of advertisement does not surprise Ted Fitzer, a laid-off financial controller from Chalfont. It reminds him of one he saw about six months ago for a job "in the financial arena."

Fitzer was interested until he read the rest of the posting: It said that only employed people need apply. "I was disappointed," he said, but there was something more than that in his voice.

The nation's payrolls seem to be expanding, but many worry that one group will be left behind - the unemployed themselves, as employers bypass them for people who already have jobs.

"I think there is a perception of shelf life," said Alayne Green, an operations manager and top executive from Elverson who, like Fitzer, was laid off in June 2009.

"Employers think that if you haven't been picked up by now, there must be something wrong with you," she said.

One in three unemployed Americans has been out of work for more than a year, according to a report by Pew Charitable Trust's Fiscal Analysis Initiative.

Many laid-off people adopt the same strategies that Green and Fitzer use to stay sharp and up to date - consulting jobs, networking in their fields, and strategic volunteering to maintain skills and contacts.

But, absent that, knowledge and confidence can erode over time, making the long-term unemployed more of a hiring risk, recruiters say.

And there is also the perception that employers used the worsening economy as an excuse to jettison their less-than-solid performers.

"Sometimes the unemployed are unemployed for a reason, and the reason is they are lousy," said Ken Dubin, president of the Dubin Group, a Bala Cynwyd recruiting agency that specializes in accounting and finance.

Dubin estimates that about one in four unemployed fall into that category.

"These assumptions don't fit the new reality," countered Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group.

"There is a reason" the unemployed have been unemployed for so long, she said. "The economy has been crappy, people have lost their jobs, and they haven't been able to find new ones."

Owens was among those who testified at a hearing last month held by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington.

The commission wanted to learn if the stigma against hiring the unemployed actually amounts to intentional or inadvertent discrimination against minorities and workers who are older than 40.

For example, in February, the average length of unemployment for everyone was 36.7 weeks in February, the Labor Department reported.

But it was longer for African Americans at 41.9 weeks and for Asians at 43.1 weeks.

The older the jobless are, the longer unemployment lasts: 44.1 weeks for those 55 to 64 compared with 29.2 weeks for those 20 to 24.

"Clearly, the mere fact of unemployment is not overtly covered by our laws" against discrimination, Justine Lisser, a senior EEOC lawyer, said in a recent interview.

But, she said, the question is whether a "seemingly neutral policy," such as a bar on hiring the unemployed, translates into illegal discrimination by age, race, or disability.

Area recruiters say that some employers balk at hiring the unemployed.

Advertisements like this one posted Wednesday on a Princeton-based recruiter's site for a $75,000-a-year Washington sales representative seem to bear them out:

"Qualified candidates MUST have 5+ years of Government Integrator sales experience. In addition YOU MUST be currently working for a Manufacturer."

Unless their clients outright forbid it, recruiters say they include the unemployed among qualified finalists presented to employers.

"I better have a rationale and explanation for what they've been doing in the interim," said Sally Stetson, a principal at Salveson Stetson Group Inc., an executive-recruiting firm in Radnor.

Recruiter Jason Hersh, from Klein Hersh International, of Willow Grove, said that unemployment becomes a factor to discuss, just like any other that may not quite fit the employer's ideal scenario.

Dubin said he followed the same practice. "I have an opening for an executive assistant and I was told, 'I don't want someone who is 45 years old who has been out of work for two years. They aren't going to be tech savvy. Their skills are antiquated.'

"I disagree," Dubin said. "There are some mature workers that are less tech savvy, but they are going to bust their humps for that job because they need to have health insurance" for themselves or for their children."

If unemployment is a disincentive for some employers, it is a plus for Tracey Deschaine, who wants to hire a breakfast/prep cook for her 80-seat Dixie Picnic restaurant in Malvern. "The individual MUST CURRENTLY BE UNEMPLOYED," said her online advertisement.

"What I'm trying to do is take advantage of on-the-job training funds" for the unemployed, Deschaine said. Government funds could pay up to 50 percent of the person's salary for several months.

"I'm totally cash-poor and undercapitalized. I have to be very cautious with my payroll," she said. "With this little bit of leeway, I may be able to get over the hump.

"You'd think in this economy it would be easy to find candidates, but it's scary to change professions," she said. "For me, how long you were on the job before is more important than how long you've been unemployed this time around."

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.