ROCKLEDGE, Fla. — The nation’s jobless rate has declined to its lowest level in three years, a fact that has left Jamie Bean, an unemployed air-conditioner repairman, feeling more left out than ever.
Bean, 36, lost his job in December. Now he is scrambling to keep up with child-support payments to his wife, who is also unemployed. “As it stands now, I can’t afford to get divorced,” he said, managing a wry smile.
Bean’s predicament is not unlike that of many people who have a high school education or less. Not only were they hit especially hard by the recession but they have continued losing ground in the recovery that has followed.
By disproportionate numbers, these Americans have given up looking for work, making the nation’s recovery appear better than it is. If the unemployment rate counted the 2.8 million people who want jobs but have stopped looking, it would sit at 9.9 percent rather than its current 8.3 percent.
These would-be workers are falling behind as other people are gaining momentum, economists say. Employment prospects are modestly improving for college graduates, for instance, but dimming for those who have a high school diploma or less.
The number of Americans facing this predicament isn’t small. Nearly a third of the nation’s labor market has only a high school diploma. And more than one in 10 of these workers lost their jobs between late 2007 and early 2011, according to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. About a third of those job losses occurred since the recovery began in mid-2009.
The news is worse for high school dropouts. One in five of them have lost their jobs since 2007, with about half of those losses occurring after the recession ended, the Urban Institute said. Overall, the unemployment rate for high school dropouts was 13.1 percent last month.
The recovery, economists say, has highlighted the consequences of not earning a college degree.
“There has been a considerable difference in who is getting those jobs,” said Pamela J. Loprest, director of the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center. She added that recent improvements in the jobless rate have not significantly lifted the burden on less-educated workers. “Lower-educated workers got hit harder. And the recovery has been uneven in that it has most benefited those with more skills.”
President Obama hailed the Labor Department’s most recent report that the nation’s unemployment rate had ticked down for the fifth consecutive month as evidence of an accelerating recovery.
Although the latest jobs report showed broad-based gains, the nation has a long way to go to make up for the positions lost during the recession — especially in some traditionally blue-collar occupations that were decimated by the recession.
Manufacturers, led by the auto industry, created 50,000 jobs in January and have added more than 300,000 positions in the past two years. But those gains pale in comparison with the 2 million manufacturing jobs that were lost during the recession. Similarly, construction jobs have grown in recent months, but not nearly enough to offset the 1.5 million that were lost in the recession.
The improvements that have occurred since the start of the recovery have accrued mostly to better-educated workers, analysts say. The economic challenge that lies ahead is finding a new place for workers such as Bean, who lack more academic credentials. Many of them rely on community colleges for their training, but those budgets have been cut in recent years.
The uneven nature of the recovery is particularly evident in states such as Florida that have struggled to rebuild parts of the economy that hire large numbers of less-educated workers.
Here along Florida’s Space Coast, a devastating one-two blow has left the job market reeling. Statewide, the implosion of the housing industry has put more than 350,000 construction workers, and untold numbers of real estate agents and mortgage brokers, out of work since July 2006.
“The construction industry was huge here,” said Rick Fraser, president of the workforce development board that covers Flagler and Volusia counties. “Construction workers were the first people hit by the downturn.”
Since then, both counties have struggled: Even with the recent surge in hiring, Flagler’s unemployment rate is 13.9 percent and Volusia’s is 10.1 percent.
In nearby Brevard County, about 10,000 Kennedy Space Center employees have been laid off over the past two years as the space shuttle and the constellation space programs were shut down.
Brevard’s unemployment rate is 10.8 percent, well above the state average of 9.9 percent.
Linda Rice, president of Brevard Workforce, the county’s job-training and placement service, said the ranks of the jobless include scientists, engineers, clerks and maintenance workers.
“Needless to say, those with a college degree are more capable of getting back into the workforce,” she said.
The workforce office requires job seekers who lack college training to take a basic-skills test to ensure that they are able to complete the job-training programs they pay for. But in many cases, Rice said, workers lack the math, computer and technical problem-solving skills needed to move forward.
“A lot of them just do not have the digital literacy that you need,” she said.
Even those who find work are discovering that the pay is lower than they are accustomed to. Parts clerks and administrative workers at the Kennedy Space Center used to make upward of $80,000 a year. Now, they are lucky to get half of that.
“I’m looking at a big pay drop,” said Shalene Pelton, a machinist who was recently laid off. “I was making more than $25 an hour. Now, the jobs I’m hearing about pay $18 — if I can get them.”
Paul Thirkelson, 45, an unemployed security guard and truck driver, has not worked since October and has been forced him out of his home. “I’m living with my retired, disabled father, and my two girls are living with a friend,” he said, as he prepared for a class at the workforce offices here.
Thirkelson said that the few jobs he has been able to find over the past several years pay poorly. He has done security work, warehouse work and work for a firm that cleans up flood-damaged homes. He has bookkeeper training, but says the jobs he qualifies for pay only $8 or $9 an hour.
“Let’s be honest: It is barely worth getting out of bed for less than $10 an hour,” he said. “I want to go ahead and get my Class A trucking license so I can make a decent living, but where do I get the money to do that?”