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Jobless rate may rise as many are drawn back to labor force

Those described as discouraged -- who are available and want to work but have stopped looking for jobs -- can affect the data significantly because of how the government calculates the jobless rate. They are considered part of the labor force and are counted in the official unemployment rate only if they are looking for work. So dropping out can deflate the rate, and resuming a search can inflate it.

"I'm going to go back Monday and see what they're saying" at the unemployment center, she said. "If they can offer me training as a medical receptionist, I'll accept it. I'm hoping I don't have the same feeling of rejection."

Meanwhile, she'll become part of the official count once more, along with part of another burgeoning and often overlapping category -- the long-term unemployed who have been out of work 27 weeks or more. Their numbers reached 6.5 million in March, up from 6.1 million in February and 6.3 million in January, and their search for work is often burdened by uncertainty: Have the kind of jobs they once held disappeared forever?

Long-term unemployment has reached record levels in this downturn, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In March, about 44.1 percent of the 15 million unemployed people across the country were out of work 27 weeks or more, up from 40.9 percent in February. The previous peak of 26 percent was reached in June 1983. About 20 percent of the people on the unemployment rolls have been out of work a year or longer, economists say.

Their circumstances exemplify the severe economic situation. In the past, people who lost their jobs could move to a better labor market in another part of the country. Not so now.

"People aren't able to sell their houses," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. "Homeowners are more locked into the labor market they're in."

David Neff, 42, of Bradenton, Fla., lost his job as a computer network administrator in 2008. Since then, he has applied for countless jobs in his field, with no success. He got licensed to sell commercial real estate last summer but has not had much luck. He is considering opening a business focusing on renewable energy, or perhaps going to school.

In the meantime, he has maxed out his credit cards and seen his home fall into foreclosure. He said he is dreading the day when he and his two children will be forced to vacate.

"I'm still putting resources out there, but I'm not hopeful," Neff said. "It's like throwing spaghetti at the wall."

With the exception of health care, even the experts can't tell what jobs and skill sets will be in demand and which won't.

"It's not clear to me who ends up on the short end of the stick in occupations that are no longer prevalent," said Christopher Woock, a researcher and labor economist at the Conference Board. "That's the hard part, figuring out where those new opportunities are going to be."

In June 2008, Dave Ellingsworth, 55, lost his marketing job at a Lasik eye surgery chain in Springfield, Mo. More than 100 résumés yielded only three interviews, but no offers.

With his unemployment benefits about to run out, he and his wife sold their house, two cars and most of their possessions. They bought a pickup truck and a trailer to live in and got a summer gig at an amusement park in Altoona, Iowa.

Both will make about $7.50 an hour, a fraction of what Ellingsworth made in marketing, he said, but it's better than nothing.

"I'm better off doing what I'm doing rather than staying there and chase an elusive job market," said Ellingsworth, who was speaking on a cellphone in his pickup en route to his new job.

Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. and Michelle Singletary contributed to this report.

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