Wednesday's announcement by the D.C. Department of Employment Services of a further decline in the city's unemployment rate in November is the kind of encouraging news that could be misinterpreted.
While the drop in the District's jobless rate to 8.3 percent -- the lowest level for November since 1980 -- sustains an encouraging trend, very little has changed in terms of the underlying problem that has spawned high unemployment in the city over the past several years. Job growth picked up between October and November and, indeed, there was an encouraging increase in jobs last year. But those developments, positive though they may be, aren't enough to suggest that the District has turned the corner on unemployment.
Assumptions that it has could result in a measure of complacency that could short-circuit efforts in the private sector, such as the Greater Washington Board of Trade's plans to tackle the unemployment problem this year.
Preliminary estimates by the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DCDES) show there were 27,000 District residents out of work in November, 600 fewer than in October. At the same time, 3,900 more District residents found employment between October and November. Most of the employment gains (1,100 jobs) over the month, as expected, were in the services sector, while 900 were added in retail trade.
The gradual decline in the District's jobless rate in 1984 may result in a yearly average of 9.2 percent, which would be 2.5 percentage points lower than the 1983 rate.
Indicators pointing to that kind of improvement prompted DCDES Director Matthew Shannon to remark: "We continue to be encouraged by the gains made in both the local and area economies, particularly in job growth and on the employment side of the picture, where impovements have occurred over the year."
These are "positive signs," Shannon continued, that indicate prospects for a "healthier economy in 1985 for the District and the entire metropolitan area." The department compiles and analyzes employment statistics for the District and other jurisdictions in metropolitan Washington.
Assuming there won't be a precipitous downturn in the national economy this year, the prospects remain strong for a healthy economy in the metropolitan area. Over the last year, according to DCDES, employment in metropolitan Washington increased dramatically, with the addition of 66,900 new jobs. Most of that growth was recorded in the private sector, continuing a trend that has been documented for some time now.
The latest figures reported by DCDES underscore another well known fact -- job growth is stronger by far in the suburbs which boast of greater balance in their economies. Given that fact, it may become necessary at some point, as some business leaders have suggested, to encourage some among the jobless in the District to seek job opportunities in other area jurisdictions where labor shortages may exist.
In the meantime, however, there clearly is a "strengthening" in the employment situation in the District, according to Shannon, who says he is encouraged by prospects in the services sector in particular in 1985. Jobs in that sector, especially those in the hospitality area, are more compatible with the skills of the structurally unemployed than those in office buildings, which attract priarily suburban residents.
Anticipated increases in hotel and restaurant jobs won't solve the broader problem, however, Shannon implied. Clearly, Shannon added, "There needs to be a closer linkage between the public school system, this department, the legal profession and other kinds of industries that support the federal government and ancillary operations."
With that type of linkage, Shannon believes, the District should be able to direct more young people toward career paths as part of a comprehensive program which would strengthen the city's employment base.
That approach seems compatible with the Board of Trade's desire to help solve the unemployment problem. But the board's biggest problem in undertaking such a program may be convincing the business community that unemployment remains a serious issue even though the jobless rate continues to decline.
Writing in the Board of Trade News recently, newly elected President Julia M. Walsh said the organization will explore ways in which the business community can become more involved.
Before doing anything, the board may find it helpful to consider a significant point which Shannon made during an interview yesterday.
"We would certainly challenge the board of trade to assist us in doing some barrier breaking," in getting the private sector to provide more job opportunities for qualified D.C. residents, he remarked.