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The other side of employment figures

Continuing a downward trend that began in mid-2007, job openings in the United States numbered 3 million in February 2009, down from 4.2 million compared to the same month a year ago, according to a new survey released April 7 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which also publishes monthly unemployment figures.
The survey provides a macro view on the U.S. employment market, breaking the country into Northeast, South, Midwest and West regions for reporting purposes.
Dennis Hoffman, professor of economics with the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, welcomes the additional information when considering the country’s employment situation, saying looking at unemployment figures alone — which are calculated by monthly household surveys — can be misleading.
He compared the national unemployment rate of 8.1 percent according to BLS for February 2009 — to Arizona’s 7.4 percent during the same month. For comparison, California tallied a whopping 10.5-percent unemployment rate.
“We’re ranking damn near last on every other employment metric out there,” Hoffman says, “yet our unemployment rate is somehow better than the nation’s? How in the hell can that even be? It just doesn’t jibe with the rest of what I’m seeing. We’ve gotta’ be damn near as bad as California.”
He says part of the problem in figuring the unemployment rate is that it is calculated on a much smaller scale, making it much more difficult to measure accurately. “It’s just a thin sample,” he says.
In addition to information on job openings, the survey includes numbers on “hires” and “separations” during a given month, all of which have been seasonally adjusted for this report.
Job openings in the West region, which includes Arizona, were reduced by 440,000 between February 2008 and February 2009. Other states in the region are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Data for individual states is not available.
Despite the country losing slightly more than 1.2 million job openings in a year, Hoffman remains optimistic, saying the labor market is still “really quite dynamic.” He tells his students there are jobs still available; they just have to dig further to find them.
National figures from the “hires” metric of the survey shows 4.36 million people were hired in February 2009 — a reduction of about 675,000 people from February 2008, when slightly more than 5 million were hired. The only region that did not experience a significant drop in hires over the sample period was the Northeast, which actually added 70,000 to the workforce.
In the West region, new hires were off by 216,000, down to about 1 million for February 2009.
Data for the “separations,” component of the survey is comprised of quits (voluntary separations), layoffs, discharges (involuntary separations) and any other separations, such as retirements.
The “quits” portion of separations — noted as a “barometer of workers’ willingness or ability to change jobs” — has declined by 1.2 million since December 2006. Since February 2008, though, the layoffs and discharges portion of the metric has increased substantially.
“In a healthy labor market, the quit rate is reasonably high,” he says. “Today they’re frozen. People are going to be less willing to say ‘I’m quitting this one and finding something new.’”
In the West region, overall separations were down by 89,000 during the past 12 months. The only region where separations actually increased over the year-long sample period was in the Midwest, where they increased by 74,000.
Nationally, for the 12 month-period ending in February 2009, hires totaled 55.3 million and separations totaled 59.2 million, yielding a net employment loss of 3.9 million. 
Hoffman concludes it is generally better to have more employment data available to get an increasingly accurate look at employment — or lack thereof — across the country or in a specific region.
“It’s like A minus B equals C. In the news, usually people just focus on C. Maybe knowing what A is and what B is is useful for people to think about as well,” he says.

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