Why have so many people given up looking for work?

People look at pieces of paper with job openings.

Amid the not-so-good news coming from the jobs report out today, there was a theoretical ray of sunshine: there has been a small drop in the unemployment rate.

However, the rate came down for all the wrong reasons — not because more people are getting hired, but because fewer people are actively looking for jobs. In fact, according to today’s numbers, labor force participation is lower than it was even during the Great Recession.

"Missing workers" is what labor economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute, calls this phenomenon

“The group of workers who are not in the labor force but who would be in if job prospects were strong,” she explains. 

She calculates that number at around four million people right now. That’s more than the population of Oregon. 

Some of these workers decided to leave the workforce to, say, raise a child, and would be ready to come back if they were more confident they could actually get a job. 

Then there are those who lost their job and, after trying for months, have just stopped looking.

That’s what happened to Ross Anderson, a 58-year-old from Minnesota who had a career in the manufacturing industry.  A few years ago, he applied for five different jobs that he eventually found out were the same job, posted by different recruiters.  It was a rollercoaster.

“I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’” he says.  “I've already been down this road and it hasn't lead to anything.”

Fearing his frustration was coming out in job interviews and hurting his prospects, Anderson took a break, and stopped applying for jobs altogether for four months.  He relied on his wife to support the family. 

It didn’t feel good. 

“I'm the kind of person that needs to work.  We find a lot of personal identity through work and without it we really get kind of lost,” Anderson remembers.

That response isn't uncommon, said Laura Labovich, president of The Career Strategy Group

"People who have been out of the work force for so long, often have this crisis of confidence,” Labovich says. "They believe it’s because of their value that they’re not employed."

For those moments of discouragement, Labovich has a few recommendations. One, don’t wait for job openings. Instead, try to tap in to what she calls "the hidden job market." She estimates that 85 percent of positions are never posted.

“They’re sourced through referrals, or through someone that comes through the door and has talked to a president or a VP and said ‘I can do something to help you,’" she said. "They talk over drinks and the position never gets posted and that person gets hired.”

Meanwhile, she says, competition gets that much stiffer for the 15 percent of job openings that still are actually posted, because most job searchers are applying for them.

Dreaded as the word is, networking is an undeniably important tactic when a job search doesn't seem to be going anywhere, says Labovich. "Just to start meeting people and make it not about a job but about making connections, making friends, and cultivating the relationships you have."

Finally, in the midst of the frustration of unemployment, don’t forget to do things you love.  It’ll make you feel better, and might help catapult you in to a job. 

Rather than feeding the doubts that a long job search can bring on, hobbies build confidence, “using the part of your brain that is actually doing what you love to do,” says Lubovich. “Whereas we don't love to job search.”

As for Ross Anderson, eventually he did find another job, through word of mouth. But he lost that one a few weeks ago, when the company downsized.  This time, he's determined not to get discouraged during the job hunt.  To stay busy and attract future employers, he just started a blog about his field.

“Right now I’m still trying very hard to get that next job.”

He has a job interview next Monday.

Ross Anderson, good luck!

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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