Friday, December 04, 2015

Keep the unemployment line moving

Picture the number of construction workers. The workforce includes about as many involuntary part-timers.

Looking for confidence in the year ahead? Take heart in unemployment holding at 5 percent. Still, as statistics skeptic Ken Harrelson says, "Don't stop now, boys."

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen told Congress yesterday to expect "further improvement in the labor market." The unemployment report this morning doesn't quite back up CNBC's Fedspeak translation, "close to full employment."

One in 4 unemployed people have been searching for more than six months. For each of the nearly 8 million stories in the unemployment office, there are another 8 million tales of hanging onto the edge of the job market, settling for part-time work or abandoning the search entirely.

The new report shows a month-over-month rise in what the Labor Department calls persons employed part-time for economic reasons. They count as employed, but can't get full-time work. At 6.1 million, their ranks hang uncomfortably at the 2008 financial-crisis level. (The entire construction industry hires about 6.5 million workers.)

It's a holiday hiring month, yet 1.7 million persons who want work don't count as unemployed because they're caring for family, back in school or just giving up on landing a job. The proportion of people 16 and up in the labor force is the same as when the year began.

It's an uneven recovery. Construction (6.8 percent jobless) and factory work (13.8 percent) are still high but showing the most improvement. The job market has slipped further in transportation and agriculture. Unemployment's still at 5.1 percent in sales and 6.5 percent among service workers, neither getting much better.

Strapped down in his seat, a sportscaster argues that statistics don't capture the will to win. But there's no guarantee that working the pitch count will get a batter on base. When the going gets tough, as in this job market, the numbers show millions working hard at getting work. Yet the tough still strike out.

More like this: Jobs report: A forest of unicorns

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