The Frozen Labor Market

The labor market recovery of the past two years ago has not gained enough strength to rule out the possibility of a lost decade.  The recovery is especially weak for less educated workers and for cities devastated by the housing market collapse.  The economy is in better shape than three years ago but we would need to add 10 million full-time jobs to return to pre-recession employment to population ratios.  It is doubtful that 2012 will be much better than 2011 because the labor market appears much less dynamic than it was just a decade ago.

The recovery is weaker than the headlines suggest.  The unemployment rate has fallen by 1.4% over the past two years but this is largely due to workers leaving the labor force; the labor force participation rate has declined by 1.1% since January 2010.  The participation rate has been trending down for years so a small part of this decline was expected.  Nonetheless we should not be encouraged by declining labor force participation during a recovery.

The following figure presents a disconcerting trend: hires and separations have fallen steadily relative to the size of the labor force over the past decade.  The labor market is much less dynamic than it was prior to the Great Recession.  Although companies are laying off fewer workers, they are also hiring fewer workers, and employed workers are reluctant to quit.  Consequently new labor force entrants and job losers face fewer job opportunities and struggle to find a job.

Gross labor market turnover, measured by the sum of hires and separations per labor force participant, has fallen 25% since 2002.  This indicates a labor market that is more sluggish and less dynamic than it was just a decade ago.  Companies may be reluctant to hire because they are uncertain about: (i) the strength of the economic recovery, (ii) health care costs, or (iii) whether temporary tax code provisions will be extended or curtailed.  Hiring rates may also be weak because jobless workers lack the skills and experience that companies demand, or because start-ups can’t obtain financing for their new ventures.  A robust recovery must include much more hiring so that enough jobs are created to employ new graduates and the long-term unemployed.  This won’t happen if the labor market remains as sluggish as it has been since 2008.

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