In a speech delivered on August 17, Minneapolis Fed president Narayana Kocherlakota claimed that there’s been a major breakdown between the relationship between the unemployment rate and the number of job vacancies reported in the BLS’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS). According to Kocherlakota, the breakdown began in mid-2008 as the unemployment rate rose more rapidly than the JOLTS openings data suggest—a breakdown that intensified in mid-2009, as the unemployment rate continued to rise and then failed to decline significantly as the number of openings rose by nearly 20%. Kocherlakota explains this by asserting that there’s a mismatch between the skills, geography, and demography of available workers and unfilled openings. And that’s not anything that monetary policy can change: “the Fed does not have a means to transform construction workers into manufacturing workers.”
There are many things wrong with Kocherlakota’s argument. While he’s right that a regression that forecasts unemployment based on the JOLTS openings rate says that the jobless rate should have been 7.7% in June, not 9.5%, the number of unemployed fell by over a quarter-million more than the number of openings rose during the first half of 2010.
Despite that, there are still almost 5 unemployed for every opening—down from over 6 at the end of 2009, but still enormously high. Also, as the graphs below show, the major problem with the labor market is that the recession was harsh and the recovery so far has been weak. The gap between GDP growth and employment growth, though wider than it was in the recessions of the early 1990s and early 2000s, isn’t out of line with earlier downturns, like those of the early 1980s, mid-1970s, and the 1950s. Since the JOLTS data that Kocherlakota bases his mismatch thesis on only begins in December 2000, he’s missing a lot of important history.
And, the share of permanent job losers, as opposed to those on temporary layoff, hit a record high in over 40 years of data at the end of 2009, and has come down only slightly since. By contrast, the share on temporary layoff is at a record low. Clearly, that composition makes re-employment a lot harder.
In a paper prepared for a Brookings Institution panel in March, Michael Elsby, Bart Hobijn, and Aysegul Sahin review the grim pathologies of the labor market in the Great Recession. In almost every aspect, the downturn was the worst since the 1930s. Among their specific points:
- While inflows into unemployment in the early part of the recession were dominated by the weaker demographics—the young, the less educated, the nonwhite—the rate of exit has been broadly similar for all subgroups.
- Since the workforce is now older than it was in earlier recessions, the rise in the unemployment rate is actually sharper than it appears, since older workers are less likely to be disemployed than younger ones. Adjusting historical unemployment figures for the labor force’s changing age composition shows that this recession’s unemployment rate is a record by a significant margin.
- Specifically addressing the mismatch argument, Elsby et al. find that instead of finding a divergence in outflows from unemployment between industries in structural decline and those not in decline, the rates of sectoral outflow have converged. (Outflow rates in the financial, durable goods and information sectors were all lagging the total when Elsby et al. published.) As with demographics, then, the problem is largely an aggregate one.
- The dominance of long-term unemployment among the jobless in this cycle is disturbing, since the longer people are unemployed, the less likely they are to find new employment. Based on historical relations, Elsby & Co. project that the decline in unemployment could be half as rapid as it was in the mid-1980s. (Of course, if GDP growth remains weak, then that recovery would be even slower.)
- Another factor likely to contribute to a slow decline in the unemployment rate: the high share of the employed working part-time for economic reasons. In July, they were 6.0% of the total employed, well over two standard deviations above the series’ 55-year average, and not far below last December’s record of 6.6%. And it’s likely that they’ll find full-time work before the currently unemployed do.
- Some analysts have pointed to the extension of unemployment benefits over the last couple of years as keeping the jobless rate higher than it would otherwise be. Based on other studies, Elsby et al. estimate that emergency benefits have contributed between 0.7 and 1.8 points of the 5.5 point rise in unemployment in the recession, with the lower end far more likely than the upper. (One reason: the statistical estimates are largely based on periods when temporary layoffs rather than permanent losses were more common.)
- Finally, the JOLTS data show that the quit rate was remarkably low during the recent recession. It’s picked up a bit since but remains lower than at any time before late 2008. This suggests that employed workers, who presumably have the qualifications that employers desire, remain remarkably skeptical about the possibility of finding fresh work. If it were easier than it looks for the qualified to find a job—as the mismatch theory suggests—then the quit rate would be higher.