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Thursday, April 11, 2013

My Frustration with Jobs Reports

I'm not a Pollyanna.  I'm not a tool for Obama.  I don't have my head in a dark place.  And I know I don't make stuff up in terms of jobs numbers.

But I do know that labor and economic statistics are complex, and I know that journalists and bloggers need to quickly get out an article or a post when the monthly jobs reports come out the first Friday of every month.  As a result, many good, caring writers can jump to conclusions which are either not supported or only marginally supported by the numbers-- or conclusions that seem to be true on the surface, whereas a careful analysis of those numbers might show something else.

There are dozens and dozens of reports and series of data that are produced monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  There are detailed breakdowns of employment, unemployment, and labor force participation by age, ethnic, and educational status; there are reports that indicate the number of people going from one employment status to another; there are detailed reports with some indication as to why people are not in the labor force.

Unfortunately, most of these reports are ignored by the people who write those articles on the first Friday of every month.  One of the reasons is that some of those data series aren't published until a few hours AFTER the monthly Employment Situation report hits the Internet; another reason is that it takes some time.. often quiet time... to look at those numbers, put them on spreadsheets and figure out what really happened and what it really all means.

I've found so many misstatements in those quick articles, and those misstatements often have a life of their own and spread around the Internet with the speed of light.. which is the good and the bad about the new technology of communication.

Monthly jobs numbers were never meant to be the do-all and the be-all regarding the unemployment and employment situation.  They were meant to be monthly reports, which hopefully provided more timely information than annual reports, which are generally more accurate.

Now, a few words about the current economic recovery:

I've been watching these numbers carefully since 2008, and it was my curiosity about these numbers and what they did (and did not) represent that was the basis for this blog.  The more I looked and dug through the BLS and Department of Labor sites, the more I played around with these numbers on spreadsheets, the more it became apparent to me that reports in the media on jobs numbers were often not reflecting the true depth of the jobs crisis, nor were they reflecting the true state of any recovery.

So let's make this clear:  ALL indications are that the employment and unemployment situation is much, much better than it was 3 years ago.  That doesn't mean that things are all hunky-dory.  There are many hundreds of thousands of people who are still struggling and who will never recover.  But that doesn't mean that things aren't much, much better for millions of people.

In my "real" life, I do not know anyone younger than 55 who wants work who is still without work.  This was simply not true a year or two ago.  That includes young people.  All of the recent college graduates that I know have work and most of it is full-time, professional level work.  That doesn't mean that many with recent college degrees aren't struggling;  I'm sure many are.  But the situation is much, much better than it was one or two or three years ago.

People are easily misled.

I personally think that we have a serious education problem in this country.  People don't know how to interpret facts, particularly any fact that involves numbers, and people don't know how to find and use sources, so they are at the mercy of writers, often reporters with no training of statistics, often reporters with a deadline, often reporters and bloggers who have a position to promote.  Also, the misconceptions which abound, some of which I list below, show how good the conservatives and conservative media, such as Fox News, talk radio, and various right wing blogs have been in deceiving and misleading the American people.  It is possible that many of the naysayers and dullards are paid trolls as well.

People Believe the Most Absurd Things

Based on comments, emails, and search terms, the following are common misconceptions.  When people are presented with correct facts in various blogs and forums, some of them are insulting.  They can't accept a reality different than their own.

  • Thousands of people really believe that we are still shedding jobs every month when we haven't had a net monthly loss of jobs for 30 months now (and 37 months in the private sector). 
  • Thousands of people (most of whom had never heard of the term "labor force participation rate" a year or two ago) now act as though the labor force participation just started to decline in 2009 and that such a decline is a very bad thing and should be blamed on the Democrats.  
  • Thousands of people do not realize that the NUMBER of people in the civilian labor force is near an all-time high, and that all-time high was reached earlier this year.    
  • Thousands of people really believe that the alternate unemployment rate should be used as the "real" unemployment rate despite the fact that it has NEVER been used for some very good reasons.
  • Thousands of people believe that we should count people who "gave up" and stopped looking for work as unemployed despite the simple fact that, if someone stops looking for work, how can he/she expect to be found by employers and offered a job?  Does anybody really know anyone who got a job who was not actively looking for work?   
  • Thousands of people REFUSE to believe that we actually have been hiring over 4,000,000 people a month (while laying off less than 2,000,000 a month) because they can't understand NET vs. GROSS jobs numbers.
  • Thousands of people can't understand how 350,000 initial weekly claims for unemployment can co-exist with 30 months of job growth. 
  • Thousands of people believe that the declining labor participation rate is a really bad thing despite the fact that it is due mostly to 1. Large numbers of retiring Baby Boomers and 2. Increasing school enrollment among young people 16 through 29.  The only way we could get a labor participation rate up to what the conservatives and their flock tell us that it should be would be to refuse to let people retire and to refuse to let young people go to school if they wish to go to school.  (Hmmm.. Aren't decreases in Pell Grants and increases in the retirement age part of the Republican platform?)   
  • Thousands don't know that we lost 4.6 million jobs BEFORE Obama took one step into the Oval Office.
  • Thousands don't know that the Housing bubble burst BEFORE Democrats took over Congress in January 2007.  Jobs numbers in housing related fields and housing starts peaked and started going downhill (quickly) in mid 2006, well before the Congressional elections.
  • Repeated polls show that people are more concerned about the economy and employment than are concerned about government spending and the national debt.  Thousands of people don't know this.
  • Thousands think that the 90 million people who are not in the labor force are able-bodied working age people who want to work.
The Bottom Line

My whole purpose in this blog is to present data and facts about employment and unemployment, and to present that data in a balanced way:  Yes, things are better, but many are still struggling.  The March employment report was not that great, but it doesn't mean that the sky is falling.  We don't know what the effect of the Sequester will be on jobs and economic growth.  Government policies could help more people get back to work, but they have been consistently blocked by Republicans in Congress.

That's basically it.   

4 comments:

  1. "In my "real" life, I do not know anyone younger than 55 who wants work who is still without work."

    I know that you are a thoughtful commentator on employment metrics, Molly. One thing that I see that you may have missed here, however, is the using the word 'work' as a word that connotes a single thing, namely, employed or better, not unemployed.

    As a 54 yr old who lost his job from an offshoring maneuveur that many companies in my industry also participate in, I know I can find 'work', any work, such as min wage, now and I cd have found such work last year or two years ago.

    But the work I need is work that pays for the standard of living that I have wrapped all over and in me - house , kids, collegee, etc. Min wage work, even two of them, does not work, to use a phrase.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are quite right... 50 or 55 seems to be the cutoff for finding work, but even minimum wage jobs are eluding people who are a bit older... Many of us are deemed "overqualified" for such work.

      My point is that things are getting better for many, many people, including many people that I know. But there are many people like you and others, particularly those of us who are older, who are still searching (and may never be able to find) those middle class, stable jobs. And that creates misery for tens of thousands of people.

      Delete
  2. Fifty five here.
    6 years military
    6 years electronics
    20 + years software

    can't buy an interview and I know of others in my shoes.

    most of us went into the service rather than college.

    apparently we are now fit for washing spitoons according to washington and the silicon valley bunch

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, Virgil.. It seems to me that the age bunch that has been hurt the most by this recession are the older people, starting at age 50 or 55. My son is graduating with a degree in CS in December and was looking for an internship for this summer. He had five interviews in a week, two offers within 48 hours of the interviews. These are paid internships. One of his friends, who got a degree in CS a couple of years back, worked for 3 years in California, and then moved back to the Midwest for family reasons had an interview one day and was working the next. It was temporary at first, but he is now a permanent employee.

      But older IT people are struggling.. and are usually considered "overqualified" for the proverbial spittoon cleaning job.

      I am approaching early SS, and my husband was just approved for SSDI, the result of a disabling accident three years ago (which was partially to blame for the loss of his longtime job and unemployment starting in 2010.) Never thought we'd be happy to be older...and (for my husband) "disabled".

      Delete

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