What The Jobs Numbers Mean To You

The jobless rate rose to 9.1 percent last month. Unemployment claims inched up again. Hiring by business dropped to 53,000, but health care jobs continued growing.

There are so many jobless numbers, with new ones each week from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and more from state and local labor departments.  So what do they mean to you, as you send out resumes and seek a great job?

The unemployment rate is only a number – one number – in a sea of economic statistics. Yet for job seekers it can drain their energy and enthusiasm or raise doubts about their prospects.

Some career coaches suggest anyone trying to stay positive stay away from the data, turn off CNBC and bypass the latest report on long-term unemployed or foreclosures. These people say you need to concentrate on information that you can use, and circumstances you can control.

While this may work for some professions and personalities, others need to understand the business and economic trends to be effective at their jobs. They may want to stay abreast and identify trends that could improve their prospects.

Many people don’t understand that the improving job market in the last year – minus May’s dreary numbers – largely resulted from a reduction in layoffs, not a huge increase in hiring. “Layoffs are back to pre-recession levels,” said Heidi Shierholz, economist with the Economic Policy Institute. But job openings and hirings still are well below normal levels when the U.S. economy is running like a well-tuned engine.

Given this, she suggests job hunters could start by focusing on two datasets:

  • The job seekers ratio. This shows the number of job seekers for every available opening, and it’s calculated by Shierholz’ Economic Policy Institute and also by a few job search sites. “That’s a key one,” she said. Yet it’s also a tad misleading: It shows numbers of people, and does not give any estimate on the number of applicants for any job, since job seekers may apply for many openings in one day. Nationwide, the ratio is currently 4.6 unemployed individuals for every job, she said, noting it had been as high as 7 in the recession and should end up around 1.5 when times are good.
  • Hiring statistics. This dataset shows what industries and sub-sectors are adding jobs and “changing the pace of hiring,” she said. It can be tracked both nationally – the BLS monthly jobs report the first Friday of the month – and for metropolitan areas and states.

Shierholz writes reports on the labor market, and believes “you need to look at a variety of numbers to get a full picture” of what’s happening. It also pays to read research and reports that come directly from government agencies, and are not filtered by economists or pundits with points of view. Some of the statistics to add perspectives and nuance show up in my WorkingKind blog post and many of them show up on the BLS website.

Once you have honed in on a handful of employment statistics, you need to use them effectively – to target sectors that are hiring or to pitch services that are likely to be in demand. You also may find them useful if you’re in a management or budget or finance field to discuss economic trends as easily as you talk about online games or kids’ summer sports.

Then make the big jobless numbers – millions of unemployed and a need for 11 million jobs to bring the jobless rate down to 5 percent, according to the EPI — motivate you to work harder, and engage your work-til-you-win attitude.

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