Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Labor Force Participation Rates Declining

12/19/14 - To the average observer, it would appear that California’s economy is steadily recovering. Unemployment rates are down, and new jobs are being introduced at a constant pace. Yet, in Tiffany Hsu’s L.A. Times article, it is revealed that the labor force is much smaller than it may seem.

Unemployment rates are measured based on the number of people receiving unemployment benefits from the government, not necessarily based on the number of people actually without work. Once someone has given up and stopped looking for work altogether, they are no longer considered “unemployed,” since they no longer qualify for unemployment benefits. So, “unemployment rates” tend to be quite misleading.

According to Hsu’s sources, the more accurate measurement of the labor force’s stability is the “labor force participation rate” – the number of people working or actively looking for work in proportion to the number of working-age individuals in the population. This, compared to the “unemployment rate” is more accurate in that it takes into account individuals who have given up on finding employment. The currently falling labor force participation rate has dramatic implications on the state of the economy.

A drop in the participation rate could mean that the jobs available are not the jobs people need. For many with college degrees and experience in well-paying fields, a plethora of jobs in the fast food industry means very little. Even for those who are willing to “lower their standards” and accept jobs for which they are “overqualified,” like a barista or salesperson, such positions have so much competition that the odds of gaining employment are slight. In the end, many individuals simply prefer to stay unemployed rather than risk losing such government benefits as Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance.

No matter what the reason, a decrease in the participation rate can’t be a good thing. With more seniors continuing to work well into their sixties and seventies, and new graduates looking for work straight out of school, only so many positions are available to recently laid-off workers. If higher-paying positions are unavailable in California, job-seekers will look elsewhere for employment, and that can have consequences.

While a decline in unemployment rates may seem like a positive sign, Hsu shows why this positive impact is limited. Statistics are misleading, but the bottom line is this: we need to get people back into the labor force. The state has been creating new jobs, but mainly in lower-paying fields. Workers, especially those with college degrees, want to work in jobs “worthy” of their skills. Thus, to bring the workers back in, the creation of better jobs must be a priority.

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