Economic Indicators | Jobs and Unemployment

Four-and-a-Half Years Since Recovery Began, No Jobs for More Than 60% of Job Seekers

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The December Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) data released this morning by the Bureau of Labor Statistics mark six years since the official beginning of the Great Recession in December 2007 and four-and-a-half years since its official end in June 2009. Job openings declined by 43,000 in December, bringing the total number of job openings to 4.0 million. In December, the number of job seekers was 10.4 million (unemployment data are from the Current Population Survey and can be found here). Thus, there are 10.4 million job seekers and only 4.0 million job openings, meaning that there are only enough job openings for 38.5 percent of job seekers. This means that more than 60 percent of job seekers were not going to find a job in December no matter what they did. In a labor market with strong job opportunities, there would be roughly as many job openings as job seekers. We are clearly not in a strong labor market.

Furthermore, the 10.4 million unemployed workers understates how many job openings will be needed when a robust jobs recovery finally begins, due to the existence of 5.7 million would-be workers who are currently not in the labor market, but who would be if job opportunities were strong. Many of these “missing workers” will become job seekers when a robust jobs recovery begins, so job openings will be needed for them, too.

Rate of hiring has seen no improvement in nearly two years

One of the best ways to judge the relative strength of job opportunities over time is to examine the hires rate—the share of total employment accounted for by new hires. This is an important comprehensive measure of the strength of job opportunities because it incorporates two components: 1) net new hires, and 2) new hires that are due to churn (discussed below). Figure A shows the hires rate each month over time. It fell dramatically in the Great Recession, saw some very modest improvement between the middle of 2009 and early 2012, but has made no sustained improvement since February 2012, nearly two years ago.

Figure A

Hires rate, December 2000–December 2013

Month Hires
Dec-2000 4.1%
Jan-2001 4.4%
Feb-2001 4.1%
Mar-2001 4.2%
Apr-2001 4.1%
May-2001 4.2%
Jun-2001 3.9%
Jul-2001 3.9%
Aug-2001 3.9%
Sep-2001 3.8%
Oct-2001 3.8%
Nov-2001 3.8%
Dec-2001 3.6%
Jan-2002 3.7%
Feb-2002 3.8%
Mar-2002 3.6%
Apr-2002 3.8%
May-2002 3.8%
Jun-2002 3.7%
Jul-2002 3.9%
Aug-2002 3.7%
Sep-2002 3.7%
Oct-2002 3.7%
Nov-2002 3.8%
Dec-2002 3.8%
Jan-2003 3.8%
Feb-2003 3.6%
Mar-2003 3.4%
Apr-2003 3.5%
May-2003 3.5%
Jun-2003 3.6%
Jul-2003 3.6%
Aug-2003 3.6%
Sep-2003 3.7%
Oct-2003 3.8%
Nov-2003 3.6%
Dec-2003 3.8%
Jan-2004 3.7%
Feb-2004 3.6%
Mar-2004 3.9%
Apr-2004 3.9%
May-2004 3.8%
Jun-2004 3.8%
Jul-2004 3.7%
Aug-2004 3.9%
Sep-2004 3.8%
Oct-2004 3.9%
Nov-2004 3.9%
Dec-2004 3.9%
Jan-2005 3.9%
Feb-2005 3.9%
Mar-2005 3.9%
Apr-2005 4.0%
May-2005 4.0%
Jun-2005 4.0%
Jul-2005 4.0%
Aug-2005 4.1%
Sep-2005 4.1%
Oct-2005 3.7%
Nov-2005 3.9%
Dec-2005 3.8%
Jan-2006 3.8%
Feb-2006 4.0%
Mar-2006 4.0%
Apr-2006 3.8%
May-2006 4.1%
Jun-2006 3.9%
Jul-2006 4.0%
Aug-2006 3.8%
Sep-2006 3.8%
Oct-2006 3.8%
Nov-2006 4.1%
Dec-2006 3.8%
Jan-2007 3.9%
Feb-2007 3.8%
Mar-2007 3.9%
Apr-2007 3.8%
May-2007 3.9%
Jun-2007 3.8%
Jul-2007 3.7%
Aug-2007 3.7%
Sep-2007 3.7%
Oct-2007 3.8%
Nov-2007 3.7%
Dec-2007 3.6%
Jan-2008 3.6%
Feb-2008 3.5%
Mar-2008 3.5%
Apr-2008 3.6%
May-2008 3.4%
Jun-2008 3.5%
Jul-2008 3.3%
Aug-2008 3.4%
Sep-2008 3.2%
Oct-2008 3.3%
Nov-2008 2.9%
Dec-2008 3.1%
Jan-2009 3.1%
Feb-2009 3.0%
Mar-2009 2.9%
Apr-2009 3.0%
May-2009 2.9%
Jun-2009 2.8%
Jul-2009 2.9%
Aug-2009 2.9%
Sep-2009 3.0%
Oct-2009 2.9%
Nov-2009 3.1%
Dec-2009 3.0%
Jan-2010 3.0%
Feb-2010 3.0%
Mar-2010 3.2%
Apr-2010 3.2%
May-2010 3.4%
Jun-2010 3.1%
Jul-2010 3.1%
Aug-2010 3.0%
Sep-2010 3.0%
Oct-2010 3.1%
Nov-2010 3.1%
Dec-2010 3.2%
Jan-2011 3.0%
Feb-2011 3.1%
Mar-2011 3.2%
Apr-2011 3.1%
May-2011 3.1%
Jun-2011 3.2%
Jul-2011 3.1%
Aug-2011 3.2%
Sep-2011 3.3%
Oct-2011 3.1%
Nov-2011 3.2%
Dec-2011 3.1%
Jan-2012 3.2%
Feb-2012 3.4%
Mar-2012 3.3%
Apr-2012 3.2%
May-2012 3.4%
Jun-2012 3.3%
Jul-2012 3.1%
Aug-2012 3.3%
Sep-2012 3.1%
Oct-2012 3.2%
Nov-2012 3.3%
Dec-2012 3.1%
Jan-2013 3.2%
Feb-2013 3.3%
Mar-2013 3.1%
Apr-2013 3.2%
May-2013 3.3%
Jun-2013 3.2%
Jul-2013 3.3%
Aug-2013 3.3%
Sep-2013  3.4%
Oct-2013 3.3%
Nov-2013 3.3%
Dec-2013 3.2%

Note: Shaded areas denote recessions.  The hires rate is the number of hires during the entire month as a percent of total employment.

Source: EPI analysis of Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey

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Labor market churn

The JOLTS data are a regular reminder that there is always a great deal of churn in the labor market. In 2013, the labor market added an average of 194,000 jobs per month, but this is a net change, which masks a lot of shuffling. In particular, over the last year an average of more than 4.4 million workers were hired every month, and nearly 4.3 million workers either left their jobs voluntarily or were laid off every month. These hires and separations numbers, however, are currently very low; when the labor market is stronger, there is much more churn. For example, in 2006 and 2007, there were 5.3 million people being hired and 5.1 million people separating from their jobs each month on average. The reason there is less churn today is that job opportunities are so scarce that employed workers are much less likely to quit the job they have. In 2006 and 2007, nearly 3 million workers voluntarily quit their jobs each month. That dropped to a low of 1.6 million in September 2009. It has since increased, but is still extremely low relative to before the Great Recession. In December, 2.4 million workers voluntarily quit their jobs. Because leaving a job for a better opportunity can be an important way for workers to advance, this persistent depressed rate of voluntary quits represents millions of lost opportunities. 

Today’s weak labor market is not because workers don’t have the right skills

Figure B shows the number of unemployed workers and the number of job openings by industry. This figure is extremely useful for diagnosing what’s behind our sustained high unemployment. If our current elevated unemployment were due to skills shortages or mismatches, we would expect to find some sectors where there are more unemployed workers than job openings, and some where there are more job openings than unemployed workers. What we find, however, is that unemployed workers dramatically outnumber job openings across the board. There are between 1.3 and 8.2 times as many unemployed workers as job openings in every industry. In other words, even in the industry with the most favorable ratio of unemployed workers to job openings (finance and insurance), there are still nearly 30 percent more unemployed workers than job openings. In no industry does the number of job openings even come close to the number of people looking for work. This demonstrates that the main problem in the labor market is a broad-based lack of demand for workers—not, as is often claimed, available workers lacking the skills needed for the sectors with job openings.

Figure B

Unemployed and job openings, by industry (in thousands)

Industry Unemployed Job openings
Professional and business services 1284.5 689.9
Health care and social assistance 824.8 595.6
Retail trade 1264.4 442.2
Accommodation and food services 1132.6 445.2
Government 851.0 393.9
Finance and insurance 274.2 212.3
Durable goods manufacturing 611.5 165.0
Other services 444.5 153.2
Wholesale trade 198.9 126.4
Transportation, warehousing, and utilities 405.7 136.5
Information 175.5 96.0
Construction 935.0 114.0
Nondurable goods manufacturing 407.6 95.2
Educational services 273.5 65.3
Real estate and rental and leasing 150.0 58.8
Arts, entertainment, and recreation 246.4 59.3
Mining and logging 64.1 21.3

Note: Because the data are not seasonally adjusted, these are 12-month averages, January 2013–December 2013.

Source: EPI analysis of data from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey and the Current Population Survey

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See more work by Heidi Shierholz