Initial jobless claims go down despite jobs being scarce

December 22, 2011

There has been some good news for job-seekers in recent weeks: a steep drop in the unemployment rate last month and fewer people filing for unemployment insurance benefits than at any other time in more than three years.

But the apparent progress masks an unpleasant reality. The job market is frozen in place. Employers aren’t slashing jobs, but they also aren’t adding them on any large scale. Workers who have jobs are holding onto them, so that there are fewer openings for the young and unemployed to fill. The ratio of working-age people with a job has been unchanged basically for two straight years.

It beats the massive job cuts of 2009, but there are frustratingly few signs that the job market will return to health anytime soon.

“It’s Groundhog Day,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. “It’s the same thing, over and over. We’re not backtracking or contracting. It’s just static, not losing ground but also not digging out of it.”

The Labor Department reported Thursday that 364,000 people last week filed initial claims for jobless benefits — the lowest figure since spring 2008. The revised number for the previous week was 368,000. The numbers can be particularly volatile around the holidays, due to seasonal adjustments, but the lower numbers continue a gradual downward trend that has been underway for months. But unless more people start getting jobs as well, unemployment won’t come down much.

The number of people employers have been hiring has remained mired far below pre-recession levels, and little changed over the past year, according to a Labor Department survey that explores the inner workings of the job market. The 3.3 million job vacancies that employers reported having in October, the most recent month for which figures are available, meant there were 4.3 unemployed people looking for a job for each vacancy.

Part of the story is that fewer Americans are leaving their jobs voluntarily. Before the recession, more than 2 percent of workers quit their job each month. That statistic has been at 1.5 percent for much of this year. Although seemingly small, this difference adds up dramatically over time.

Workers are hanging onto the jobs they have, apparently fearful that if they quit, they won’t easily find another.

“There is a terror on the part of workers who continue to have jobs that jumping ship might get them into trouble,” said Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “That means that employers don’t have as many opportunities to add to their payrolls, and that has to be bad for anyone looking for a new job or joining the labor force.”

On the plus side, employers aren’t letting many of their workers go. Only 1.2 percent of workers were laid off or fired in October, according to the Labor Department survey, a level that is even lower than it was in 2007, before the recession.

Some economic indicators in recent months have offered hope for the job market. The number of people reporting themselves as having in a job has increased by an average of 321,000 a month for the past four months. That hints at a better pace of job creation than a more closely watched job growth number that is based on a survey of employers. This could reflect more people working on a self-employed basis, or that companies that are too new and small to be well-covered in the survey of employers are hiring.

There hasn’t been any meaningful improvement, however, in the ratio of people ages 25 to 54 who have a job. Shierholz notes that ratio has bounced around at about 75 percent since the middle of 2009, showing no consistent move­ment toward the 80 percent level typical before the recession. Unlike the unemployment rate, this ratio isn’t influenced by whether people describe themselves as wanting a job or whether students choose to stay in school longer.

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