25 July 2017

Note from Norm: A Job Market That Works for All Americans

The unemployment rate in the United States currently stands at about 4.8%.  Many economists consider that figure to be what is called “full employment”.

The U.S. Federal Reserve considers full employment to take place somewhere around a 5% to 5.2% rate.

So, how can it be that there are still nearly 7.8 million Americans not working and only 63% of Americans actually in the labor market and we can be at full employment?

Without getting far more technical than necessary full employment essentially means that the number of people looking for jobs is about equal to the number of actual job openings.

So, this should be a cause for celebration, right?

Yes and no.

In today’s American economy if you live in Silicon Valley you are experiencing, literally, an unemployment rate of zero percent.

Yet, if you live in El Centro, California, the unemployment rate stands at over nineteen percent.

And, if you’re black or Hispanic, that unemployment rate is different than if you’re white.

The rate for Hispanics was 5.2 percent — and for African Americans, 7.9 percent.  The rate for white Americans is 3.8 percent.

If you’re an African American or Hispanic teen in America the job market seems even less robust with an unemployment rate of 21.1% and 14%, respectively.

In America, the job market is very good if you live in specific regions of the country, are white or an adult.

It’s very bad if you live in other regions of the country, are African American or Hispanic or a teen.

But, it’s not just where you live, your age or the color of your skin that determines whether you feel like you are living in a time of full employment.

Your level of skill and training plays a significant role.

As Kate Warne, an Edward Jones investment strategist states, the type of skills you have are also determining the sense of job market optimism.

“We have two labor markets…We have skilled workers like the Google techies and then a “much larger pool of people with skills that don’t match current jobs.”

So-called “prime age” workers are suffering, too.

These are workers between the ages of 25-54 who should be at the top of their employment game.

According to CNN from “…1990 through 2007, nearly 80% of prime-aged Americans (ages 25 to 54) were working…Today only 78.5% of that group is working.”

That 1.5% may not seem like much of a drop but in the same story CNN writes To put it another way, if the US had closer to 80% participation again, 1.7 million more people would be working today.”

But it isn’t just millions of people without jobs for Americans that is a cause for concern.

It is the millions of people who are underemployed.

According to Gallup there are nearly 14% of Americans who are underemployed.

What is the definition of underemployed?

One definition that I believe accurately depicts who the underemployed are in America can be found here:

“Labor that falls under the underemployment classification includes those workers who are highly skilled but working in low paying jobs, workers who are highly skilled but working in low skill jobs and part-time workers who would prefer to be full time.”

It may well be that the underemployed in American represent the greatest threat, and greatest opportunity, for our economy.

The threat to our long-term economic growth is best summed up by Amanda Dixon of Smartasset.com.

“Underemployed workers who aren’t happy with their jobs are more likely to be detached and unproductive. Those who feel unmotivated may fail to put effort into gaining additional skills that could improve their job prospects. At its worst, underemployment can raise the poverty rate, lower consumer spending and weaken the economy.”

There is much to be optimistic about with today’s economy.  It is growing.  Businesses are hiring.  The unemployment rate is substantially lower than it was just two years ago.

The increasing rates of retirement of “Baby Boomers” is creating more vacancies in good paying jobs that need to be filled.

But, there are too many Americans who want work without a job and too many Americans who are working at a job they don’t want.

Calibrating these two extremes requires a careful consideration of the needs of economy.

The fact is more and more American jobs are requiring a higher degree of technological skills that far too many Americans do not currently possess.

Additionally, there are many news stories in which employers in certain regions of the country are struggling to fill jobs because there are not enough qualified workers to fill them.

Focusing efforts on how we can ensure that our education and workforce development systems are best equipped for the future American, and global, economy is paramount to this economic reality.

So, too, is the need to find ways to get people capable of working, but choosing not to do so, back into the labor market.

We must also address the age and racial inequities in our labor market, as well, that hold African American and Hispanics of every age and gender back from achieving the American Dream.

The American economy is at its strongest point since the most recent recession and that is reason for optimism and celebration.

But, to keep it strong and vibrant we must address the needs of today and tomorrow’s labor and job market.

More Americans who want jobs, must have the skills and ability to access them.

More Americans who have part-time jobs, must have the skills and ability to move into full-time jobs.

The more Americans work the more America’s economy will work for everyone.