Jobs report reveals discouraged workers giving up job hunt

A job seeker listens to a potential employer at a career fair in Denver, Colo.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: I don't know how to set up the unemployment story you're about to hear other than to say we just got a weird jobs report this morning. Not even close to what we were expecting.

First, according to monthly survey of households, the unemployment rate fell last month from 9.8 to 9.4 percent. That's the kind of rollercoaster drop that gives economists vertigo. It puts the unemployment rate at the lowest it's been in a year and a half.

But -- and with a set-up like that you knew this was coming -- the survey of employers showed just 103,000 new jobs in December. That's far less than anticipated, and it suggests employers are still reluctant at best to add new workers. Here's Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman to explain what gives.


Mitchell Hartman: First, that drop in the unemployment rate. No one expected it -- no one's complaining.

Christine Owens: You know I think it's a great thing that the unemployment rate went down to 9.4 percent.

That's Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project, and while she is encouraged, she's still got a long list of worries about the job market.

Owens: The fact that we have had such high persistent long-term unemployment for so long now, and that the numbers of discouraged workers are growing, and that we had close to 300,000 people drop out of the labor force.

In fact, about half that drop in the unemployment rate? It came from people giving up the job hunt altogether, and not being counted as 'unemployed' anymore. And this nearly-jobless-recovery hits some much harder than others, says John Canally of brokerage firm LPL Financial.

John Canally: So the unemployment rate for those with less than a high school diploma is 15.3 percent. The unemployment rate for those with a bachelor's degree and higher is about 4.8 percent. So the gap between those two is key.

And likely to widen, says Christine Owens. It's worst for workers who found a seemingly bottomless pool of low-skilled jobs in retail, construction, or manufacturing before the recession.

Owens: Workers in those sectors that have really been hit hard by this downturn anyway. Many of them are somewhat older -- that doesn't mean they're old, but they're just somewhat older -- and it's just harder to get back into the labor force.

Eventually many economists predict they will be looking for work, which could send the unemployment rate up again.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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