Higher Education and the Labor Market Recovery

The February jobs report generated a lot of buzz: employment increased by almost 2.6 million in the past twelve months according to the household survey.  Unfortunately a more careful examination of the data indicates that there has been no recovery for workers with a high school diploma or GED, or for high-school dropouts.  The jobs gap for less educated workers is a structural, not cyclical, labor market problem.  Moreover, the fastest grow segment of the labor market is part-time employment for adults age 20-24, most of whom are enrolled in a two-year or four-year college.  One out of five jobs added in the past year were part-time jobs for college-age young adults. 

There are three groups of workers that account for all of the employment gains in the past twelve months: adults with a college degree, adults with some college education, and part-time workers between the age of 20 and 24. 

Here is how employment has increased in the past twelve months:

  • An increase of 3.0% (1.31 million) for college graduates age 25 and above.
  • An increase 2.2% (753,000) for adults age 25 and above with some college education.
  • An increase of 10.7% (527,000) in part-time employment of adults age 20-24.
  • No change in employment for the rest of the labor force.

Almost all of the employment gains in the recovery have accrued to college graduates, part-time workers who are college students, or adults who previously attended college.  About 51% of job gains in the past year were achieved by college graduates, 29% by adults who attended college but did not receive a bachelor’s degree, and the remaining 20% by part-time jobs for adults in their early 20s, the majority of whom are college or community college students.  The remaining 40% of the workforce have seen no net new jobs in the past year.

It is quite remarkable that college-age workers in part-time jobs are responsible for 20% of employment growth in the past year even though they are less than 4% of the workforce.  Many students have delayed college completion and took a part-time job, because of the weak labor market.  These students want full-time employment that will allow them to utilize their education and training, move out of their parents’ homes, and repay their student loan debt.  The growth in part-time employment of college students is an indication of the labor market’s underlying weakness.

Could it be the Weather?

Friday’s jobs report showed that the economy lost almost 2.7 million jobs between December 2011 and January 2012.  That’s pretty good for a January.  In the world of labor statistics and seasonal adjustments it translates into a gain of 243,000 jobs.  How does that work?  The Job loss of 2.02% in January of 2012 was better than what we have seen recently.  If we exclude the change from December 2008 to January 2009, at the depths of the recession, the average December to January change since 2006 was a decline in employment of 2.11%.

We learned on Friday that employment is 9/100 of one percent higher than it would be have been if January 2012 was like the typical January in recent years.  With total employment in the U.S. of approximately 130 million, this means there were 117,000 more people working in January than we would have otherwise expected.

What does this mean for our economic outlook?  It could be that employment was slightly higher due to an unusually mild winter.  It could be that fewer seasonal workers were hired heading into the holidays and laid off in January.  The January employment declines in retail and leisure and hospitality were unusually modest; 3.4% compared to the typical 3.6% decline.  These two industries account for half of the 117k additional jobs.

Friday’s jobs report may be signaling that the labor market recovery is accelerating as we head into 2012.  Or it may indicate that consumer spending was a little higher during an unusually mild January.  If the latter is correct we should be prepared for smaller than usual employment gains as we head from winter into spring.

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