look at Job-opening figures paint concerning picture

By Larry DeBoer

The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that payroll employment in the United States in August increased by 189,000.

It was a typical number for the last couple of years. The average so far this year has been 178,000. The average last year was 187,000. August was a normal month.

But wait. That can’t be the number of new jobs in the enormous U.S. economy. Indiana has about 2 percent of U.S. employment, so we’d have about 3,700 of those jobs. That would be 41 new jobs in the average Indiana county. Heck, my employer, Purdue University, lists more than 200 job openings by itself, right now.

But I protest too much. The 189,000 new jobs in August is a net number, made up of newly hired people minus people who have left their jobs. Fortunately, the bureau keeps track of such numbers with a survey called “JOLT,” Job Openings and Labor Turnover.

In August, about 5.5 million people were hired, and about 5.3 million people left their jobs. The difference is the employment growth figure that we heard in August.

If Indiana is 2 percent of those totals, the average county had about 1,200 new hires last month. That sounds more plausible. You can find the JOLT data on the bureau’s website at www.bls.gov/jlt.

The JOLT program surveys about 16,000 businesses each month to collect data on total jobs, new hires, separations and job openings. Separations include people who have quit, meaning they’ve left their jobs voluntarily, and several categories of involuntary separations. You know, fired or laid off. In August, 3.1 million people quit their jobs, and 2.2 million lost their jobs.

Job openings are the mirror image of unemployment. To be counted as unemployed, a person must be without a job and searching for work. A business has a job opening if a job is without a worker and the business is looking for one. In August, about 7.2 million people were looking for work, and 6.2 million job openings.

The JOLT data doesn’t get much publicity, maybe because it’s relatively new. The bureau started collecting it at the end of 2000, while the surveys that produce the payroll and unemployment numbers have been going for more than 70 years.

Still, the first few months of the JOLT survey were the last few months of the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. The unemployment rate dipped below 4 percent in December 2000.

We’ve also got a complete record of the Great Recession. The unemployment rate hit 10 percent in October 2009. We know what JOLT data looks like when things are going really well, and when things are really bad.

Let’s start with the good times.

In December 2000, 5.5 million people were hired, and 5.2 million separated from their jobs. Of those, 3 million were voluntary quits and 2.2 million were involuntary job losses. There were 5.6 million unemployed people searching for 4.7 million open jobs.

So, in those good times, more people were hired than separated, and net employment increased. More people separated voluntarily than involuntarily. And there were just a few more job searchers than job openings. The ratio was about 1.2 searchers for each one opening.

Now for the bad times, such as January 2009. There were 4.2 million new hires and 5 million separations. Net employment fell by 800,000. Of those separations, 2.1 million people quit voluntarily, and 2.9 million lost their jobs involuntarily. Involuntary separations were greater.

There were 12.1 million people looking for work, and 2.8 million job openings. That’s 4.3 searchers per opening. By July 2009 the number would be 6.6 searchers per opening.

Fortunately, our numbers look more like the good times. There are more new hires than separations, so net employment is rising. More people are quitting their jobs than losing them. People quit when they’re confident that they can find better jobs, and business conditions are good enough that layoffs are down.

There are 1.1 job searchers for every opening. Employment is a little tighter than it was in December 2000.

Each month we’re excited to see the employment and unemployment numbers. Now, let’s look for the hiring, separation and job opening numbers, for that extra JOLT.

Larry DeBoer is professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. Send comments to [email protected].