Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Mapping and understanding unemployment and the jobs market – the US Dept of Labor JOLTS report 2011

Posted in job search and career development by Timothy Platt on September 11, 2011

A lot of factors enter into determination of the job market, and the trends and patterns that would indicate market strength and workplace opportunity. A few of these factors can be relatively easily and unequivocally measured and with reliable accuracy, and two come to mind immediately: numbers of new jobless claims filed in any given region of the country, and numbers actively filing for new unemployment benefits. After that, numbers begin to get a lot vaguer and softer. When an employed individual runs out of benefits, that does not necessarily mean that they have landed a job and even just part time work. It does not mean they have stopped looking either, and in fact the pressures of being unemployed without any safety net can prompt even the most selective workers to seek out anything in the way of gainful employment. It is just that they have now become invisible to much of the system that would track labor statistics.

The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), with its low cost health insurance benefits for the unemployed generally remain available for months after other benefits have run out, but people who do find new work frequently keep this coverage for as long as possible after starting their new position. First, there can be significant delays between that first day on a new job and the point at which a new hire is eligible for health insurance coverage under their new employer’s plans. Secondly, not all new jobs come with benefits. And third, even if this new job does, the new employer’s benefits might not be as good as or as inexpensive as the coverage provided through COBRA, based on the previous employer’s employee benefits plans. So a new hire might wish to hold off on switching over as long as possible. So COBRA coverage numbers can only at best offer upper limits as to actual unemployed. And even there, these numbers are soft as not everyone out of work is eligible for benefits, COBRA included.

There are, of course, other numbers that could be considered here but any single measure or metric that might be employed in a labor statistics analysis has its own caveats and limitations. So assembling a relatively accurate model of the jobs market and of the unemployment picture requires assembling a complex model, balancing off numerous sometimes conflicting, and often incomplete types of data. That is where reports like the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS) enters this story, and see its summary for this document for the August 10, 2011 report, as of the time of this writing.

I am going to pick up on a second type of number that comes out in that report to add at least a small measure of depth to the more easily quantified and reported recent unemployed and currently-on-benefits numbers. The US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics also collects data from employers on the numbers of positions they have open, and when even just this data is combined with that unemployment rate data, a very interesting and telling story begins to emerge.

People look for work and find and land new jobs. People also get restless and move on, seeking out and finding new and hopefully better positions at more favorable-to-them locations, at better pay or benefits, with greater opportunity for advancement or as advancements to next levels as career steps. This is the usual pattern in a healthy economy. But right now, very few people are moving on in search of better jobs. People with jobs are simply holding on, where they are and this significantly cuts down on the numbers of openings available even as larger numbers than normal are looking – and both in the readily identified unemployed groups and in groups who are largely if not entirely invisible as unemployed.

This second set of numbers helps put the scope of the challenge for finding a new job into clearer perspective, and both for the number of positions available and for why.

And so far I have yet to even mention the truly invisible here – people who are employed but under-employed and unable to secure enough income to fully meet their basic expenses, for themselves and in support of their families.

There are no easy answers to any of this, and particularly as there are no simple and unequivocal models showing the true situation we are in as a country and collectively, or individually as people who work or who seek to work. This makes for good political posturing as politicians can cherry pick the numbers and interpretations that fit their agendas if they choose to do so – and we can all expect plenty of that coming into the upcoming 2012 presidential and congressional elections in the United States.

If I were to offer anything as a take home lesson from this posting it is a strongly felt suggestion that we all need to take both the numbers we read as to employment and unemployment with a large grain of salt – and we should question what our politicians say and regardless of their political party affiliations or personal political philosophies, or our own. And I will add that we should evaluate politically driven proposals and rationalizations with a more complex and nuanced picture of employment in mind than simply turning to the single official unemployment rate numbers as usually highlighted in the news – and whether we are working or looking ourselves. And everything here is interconnected. So even just the threat to shut down government and push the US Federal Government into default significantly if perhaps indirectly boosted both our readily measured unemployment rates, and the barriers to entry into jobs available by scaring that many more people to simply hold on to what they have – no matter what.

I am adding this posting to my blog as a supplemental posting in Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2 and you can find over 200 other postings related to jobs and careers between that directory page and my first Guide directory page.

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