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When people leaving their jobs is a good thing

David Brancaccio Apr 12, 2012

David Brancaccio: A new, worrying hint this morning about America’s job market. The number of people signing up for unemployment benefits rose by 13,000 over the last week. That puts the seasonally-adjusted number at 380,000. The consensus of economists was for the number to fall. So, a surprise and not a good one.

Heidi Shierholz is a labor economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Ms. Shierholz, thanks for joining us live.

Heidi Shierholz: Thanks for having me.

Brancaccio: So these new unemployment claims for the past week. What do you make of this?

Shierholz: OK, you never want to see these things go up. That is — you want to see them going in the right direction: heading down. But I’m not too worried about what happened this time around — that increase of 13,000 — it’s not a huge spike, and there is a ton of week-to-week variation in these numbers. So we haven’t seen a lot of improvement in the last couple of months, but the overall trend, if you eyeball this thing, going back the last couple of years is a pretty steady improvement. So we want to keep our eyes on it; we don’t want this thing to go up — but I’m not too worried about what we saw in the numbers this morning.

Brancaccio: We also learned this week, Heidi, that more Americans are quitting their jobs on their own volition, because they want to. What does that tell you?

Shierholz: Yeah, it’s sort of counter-intuitive, right? But that’s actually very good news for the labor market. In a really dynamic labor market, where there’s lots of job opportunities, that means there’s not just job opportunities for unemployed people — there’s also job opportunities for people with jobs. One of the ways people in this labor market see advancement, see wage increases, is through quitting the job they have and moving to one that’s a better match for them — a better fit for their skills, their experience, with better wages. So the fact that we’re seeing people voluntarily leave their jobs, and presumably in many cases taking another job, that is actually is a very good sign of healing in the labor market.

Brancaccio: Because it takes a sense that things are moving in the right direction for you to have the nerve to make the jump.

Shierholz: Yeah, exactly. I think that one of the problems we’ve seen in the labor market over the last few years is that hiring is very low, that the job opportunities just aren’t out there, for either the unemployed, or for people with jobs who want to move up and on. So the fact that we’re seeing people feel the confidence to voluntarily leave their job is a good signal that that’s starting to head in the right direction. One thing we do have to note, however, is that voluntary quits are still very low compared to where they were before the recession started. There’s a lot we have to make up before we’re at a truly healthy labor market, but it’s good news that it’s headed there.

Brancaccio: Heidi Shierholtz, economist at the Economic Policy Institute, thank you for this.

Shierholz: Thanks for having me.

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