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Economics. Explained.  

Unemployment vs. Job Openings

March 16, 2017

Unemployment vs. Job Openings

This release in generally rather obscure.  But. Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen often refers to data from it so its importance has increased in recent years.

The  Labor Department reported that job openings rose 1.6% in January to 5,626 after having declined a similar amount in December.    It is worth noting that there are more job openings today than there were prior to the recession.   There were 7.6 million people unemployed in December.

As shown in the chart below, there are currently 1.3 unemployed workers for every available job.   Prior to the recession this ratio stood at 1.7 so the labor market (at least by this measure) is in as good shape now as it was prior to the recession.

Unemployment vs. Job Openings (Ratio)

In  this same report the Labor Department indicated that the quit rate rose to 2.2 in January  which is the highest reading thus far in the business cycle.  This is a measure of the number of people that voluntarily quit their jobs in that  month.  It is another series that Janet Yellen likes to talk about.  During the height of the recession very few people were voluntarily quitting because jobs were scarce.  So the more this series rises, the more comfortable workers are in leaving their current job to seek another one.  The quit rate today is 2.2; at the beginning of the recession it was at 2.0.

Unemployment vs. Job Openings (Quit Rate)

There is one other point that should be made about this report.  Janet Yellen claims that there are a large number of unemployed workers just waiting for jobs if only the economy were to grow fast enough.  She is assuming that these people have the skills and are qualified for employment.  We tend to disagree.  There are plenty of job openings out there.  What is not happening as quickly is hiring.  Take a look at the chart below.  Job openings have been rising rapidly (and are considerably higher now than they were prior to the recession); hires have been rising far less rapidly.

Unemployment vs. Job Openings and Hires

Indeed, if one looks at the ratio of openings to hires the reality is that this ratio has not been higher at any point in time since this series began in 2000.  There are plenty of jobs out there, but employers are having a hard time filling them.  Why is that?

Unemployment vs. Job Openings -- Openings to Hires Ratio

A couple of thoughts come to mind.  First and foremost, many unemployed workers simply do not have the skills required for the jobs available.  If they did, why aren’t they being hired?  Why aren’t some current part time workers stepping into the void for those full time positions? Why haven’t discouraged workers begun to seek employment with so many jobs available?  Why haven’t long-term unemployed workers bothered to go back to school and acquire the skills that are necessary to land a  job?

Or perhaps many of these people flunk the drug tests.  They might not be qualified for employment for a variety of possible reasons.

Perhaps also some people in this group find that the combination of unemployment benefits and/or welfare benefits sufficiently attractive that there is little incentive to take a full time job when you can sit at home do nothing and make almost as much.

Whatever the case, it appears that the decline in the unemployment rate in the past year is not simply a reflection of workers dropping out of the labor force.  Jobs are plentiful and the only reason the unemployment rate is not falling faster is because the remaining unemployed/discouraged/part time workers do not have the skills required by employers today, flunk the drug tests, or are unwilling to take the jobs that are available.

Stephen Slifer

NumberNomics

Charleston, SC


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