Jobless numbers don’t tell full story

Posted Oct. 23, 2010, at 1:53 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 21, 2010, at 7:09 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Every month, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys households across the country to determine the unemployment rate. But they collect data far beyond the question of being out of work and looking for work, which is the monthly measure that often makes headlines.

“It is very important to us to have the alternative measures to look at,” said Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman. “They give us a more complete picture of what is happening in the work force.”

In September the state unemployment rate was 7.7 percent, a measure of those who responded to the survey that they are out of work and looking for work. Fortman said while it is good news that the measure is down from the 8 percent level of August and the 8.1 percent rate of a year ago, she is not ready to say there is a trend.

“That measure has been volatile this year, and that volatility may not be over,” she said. “Let’s look at what happens over time. It is over time where we have found the alternative measures to be very helpful in looking at trends.”

The 2,200 households surveyed in Maine also responded to questions designed to delve deeper into their employment situation. Those questions include whether they are “discouraged” workers — or those who had not looked for a job in the last month, but had looked for a job in the last year. Nationally, 65,000 households are surveyed.

“It also measures those that are part-time workers but are looking for full-time work,” said Glenn Mills, an analyst with the Maine Department of Labor. He said there are a lot of workers that have seen their full-time jobs reduced to part-time jobs in the recession.

The broadest measure, the U-6, estimated 15.2 percent of Mainers were unemployed or underemployed at the end of June, the most recent numbers available.

John Dorrer, director of the Center for Workforce Research and Information at the Department of Labor, said the strength of the alternative measures is they are designed to look at “rolling averages,” not a single month of data. He said it is a better measure for use in analyzing trends in the work force.

“It really helps in picking up people that are suffering economic hardship as opposed to those individuals that are simply counted as unemployed because they are out of work and looking for work but can’t find it,” he said.

Dorrer said because all the numbers are based on the survey, small variations may not be accurate. He said there are sampling errors that occur in all surveys and that is why he urges looking at figures over several months as opposed to monthly numbers.

Fortman said the data available through the alternative measures are helpful in planning the outreach efforts of the Department of Labor to workers that have lost their jobs.

“We try to reach out to workers that have lost their jobs before they become discouraged workers,” she said. “We try to call every person on unemployment in their first five weeks of benefits to talk with them about career centers and what we can offer them for help. We are conducting as much outreach as we can.”

She acknowledged trying to reach discouraged workers is the most difficult, in part because they are often those who have lost jobs in manufacturing and their skills “are not a match” for jobs that are available.

“Sometimes it is as simple as helping them with job search skills like how to write a resume,” she said. “But there are others that need to look to a new field entirely to get a job.”

Fortman said while her agency has about $9 million available for job training, that is far short of the need for training. She said DOL is partnering with other agencies to reach out to those workers that have been out of work so long, they are part of the discouraged worker group.

“For example, with [the Department of Health and Human Services] we are working with them so if someone comes in to apply for food stamps, they are told about our career centers,” Fortman said.

She said there is “certainly” more demand for job training than the state has resources. She hopes Congress provides more training dollars to help provide workers with new skills they need as the recession continues to affect job creation.

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