as the White House claimed last week -- in the nation's jobless rate for August, it wasn't immediately apparent in the District's unemployment figures.
The August unemployment rate in the District rose only one-tenth of 1 percent, to 9 percent. That is substantially higher than the U.S. jobless rate of 7.5 percent, which remained unchanged from July. And the relative stability of the national unemployment rate is small consolation for D.C. officials who, prior to August, had been encouraged by a sharp three-month decline in the city's jobless rate.
It was during August that the D.C. Department of Employment Services reported that the jobless rate in June had reached its lowest level since 1981. The city's unemployment rate dipped below the double-digit threshold in May and continued that trend for two consecutive months for the first time this year.
It's possible that the one-month increase in the jobless rate during August is an aberration. To assume that the rise was caused only by some small quirk in the labor market may turn out to be foolhardy, however.
D.C. officials blamed an increase in the size of the city's labor force for the rise in the August jobless rate. A gradual rise in the size of the labor force in the District has been cause for concern for some time. A major question, one official noted recently, is: What will suburban employers do to tap a labor pool surplus in the District?
The question was prompted by what seems to be a consensus that Washington's suburbs may be experiencing a labor shortage -- the reverse of the situation that exists in the District. Unemployment in metropolitan Washington rose from an incredible low of 4.1 percent to 4.2 percent last month. The jobless rate in the suburbs hasn't been much over 6 percent in two years, in fact. What's more, some suburban jurisdictions are reporting unemployment rates as low as 3 percent.
Having been a company town for so long, the District has had to pay the price in recent years for its dependency on government employment either directly or indirectly. The loss of roughly 20,000 federal government jobs since 1981 has had a greater impact on the District than on the rest of metropolitan Washington.
There really is no mystery why unemployment in the suburbs hasn't been the problem that it is in the District. The private sector in suburban jurisdictions simply generates more jobs. Not only is there a more diverse employment base outside the city limits, but economic development in the suburbs is supported by more aggressive business attraction programs. Prince George's County, for example, is expected to announce later this week that a District-based firm will move to the county, bringing at least 150 jobs. Four months ago, a District-based paper company, with 100 employes, announced plans to move to Prince George's County.
Those relocations won't mean large losses of jobs for the District, but they are symptomatic of a larger problem, which is the impact of a structural change in the District's economy.
Too often, the jobless in the District are portrayed primarily as unskilled wage earners unable to advance in Washington's predominantly white-collar work force where jobs are more plentiful.
If that's the case, then, what about those 38 systems analysts and the 92 accountants who were seeking employment last month? Or what about the 466 secretaries, 17 computer operators, 92 bookkeepers, and the 68 lawyers? To be sure, they were joined by nearly 800 construction workers and 82 automobile mechanics, but the facts speak for themselves.
The president of the Washington chapter of the Urban League is probably right when she says there is "a serious distortion of the character of the work force" in the District. Not only is there a distortion, but also "the mismatch of jobs and skills certainly is a serious problem," contends the Urban League's Betti S. Whaley.
What's more, said Whaley, there "clearly is not a concerted front" in place to address the problem of matching professional and technical skills. She bases that conclusion on "our own empirical observations" of the 300 or more clients who visit the Urban League's Washington office each month.
It seems obvious from all this that metropolitan Washington has come full circle in the movement of people to jobs. And it appears that more urban residents may have to travel to employment centers in the suburbs, reversing the traditional pattern. If the experts are right, the labor shortages are in the suburbs.