Friday, October 5, 2012

September Employment Numbers

Caption: Employment to population ratio (EPOP) for Americans over 25 who have a college degree. It's been going down for everyone else, too. (See UPDATE 3 below for other charts.)

Image credit: Created from Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data by Cujo359

Just a quick word on the September unemployment numbers, because I'm sure that more informed opinion will be along soon. As the Wall Street Journal noted:

The nation's unemployment rate fell to its lowest level since January 2009, suggesting job growth picked up over the summer and shifting questions in the presidential race about which candidate can best fix the nation's ailing economy.

The unemployment rate slid to 7.8% in September, falling below 8% for the first time since President Barack Obama's inauguration, the Labor Department said Friday. Employers added a seasonally adjusted 114,000 jobs last month, a tepid pace that was countered by the fact that figures for previous months were boosted above initial estimates. Those figures reflected that the nation added 181,000 jobs in July and 142,000 jobs in August, showing that job growth in the third quarter was far higher than in the spring.

Unemployment Rate Falls to 7.8%

In contrast to what Jack Welch thinks, there's reason to think that the numbers aren't cooked. In the Bureau Of Labor Statistics report (PDF), there's this explanation:

In September, the number of job losers and persons who completed temporary jobs decreased by 468,000 to 6.5 million. (See table A-11.)

BLS:The Employment Situation — September 2012

That's most of the rise in employment (863k) this month. The Employment to Population ratio (EPOP) was also lower, so this isn't about people falling off the "actively looking for work" wagon. It's a real decrease in the number of people who are unemployed. As the report says, though, it's bucking a trend:

Total employment rose by 873,000 in September, following 3 months of little change. The employment-population ratio increased by 0.4 percentage point to 58.7 percent, after edging down in the prior 2 months. The overall trend in the employment-population ratio for this year has been flat.

BLS:The Employment Situation — September 2012

On the negative side, there was a decrease in manufacturing employment of 16k. Going from memory, I believe that's a number as big as the largest monthly gain in manufacturing since President Obama took office. According to the BLS report, there has been essentially no change in manufacturing employment since April. That's not good for long term economic health. Nor is the rise in those who are working part-time for economic reasons (600k increase).

It looks to me like this is an aberration. The summer has lasted longer than expected. It seems possible that companies are holding onto workers they'd have normally let go a bit longer. I don't understand the economy well enough to say if this is the case, but it's almost certainly that some large employers, or some industries, have put off laying people off for a while longer. I'm sure that real economists with real economic data can come up with the real explanation later. Maybe this is the beginning of a trend toward fewer layoffs, but that's not what it is at the moment. At the moment, it's a one month blip.

On the whole, this is another lackluster report in what has been a lackluster year. Nothing about that will change. The Obama supporters will yell about how great that jump in employment is, and the Romney supporters, like Jack Welch, will tell us it's a conspiracy, and the rest of us will look around us and realize that things are pretty much like they have been lately, which isn't good.

So I suppose it all depends on your point of view.

UPDATE: No sooner do I publish this than Hugh comes out with his usual thorough analysis of this month's BLS data. He notes the higher involuntary part-time worker numbers, too. There's no real explanation of the anomaly there, though there's plenty to think about.

UPDATE 2: And there's a great analysis of why the BLS numbers never "add up" by New York Times economics reporter Catharine Rampell. The Cliff’s Notes version is that the BLS stats have a margin of error (MOE) of 100k on the employer side, and 400k on the employee side. That’s roughly 0.1 percent and 0.3 percent of the current workforce, respectively. They seasonally adjust the numbers to show how things are typically for a particular time of year. Plus, our economy changes over time. All that means the numbers aren’t going to add up exactly.

In other words, it's economics, not baseball.

Taylor Marsh has been calling the cast of mostly Republican characters who have been talking about the BLS numbers as being some sort of conspiracy "Job Truthers". This is an argument down on that level, I'm sad to say. When it comes to anything coming out of the Obama Administration's mouths, no one's more justifiably skeptical than I am. Still, this is how things are done, how they've been done, and that hasn't changed since Bush The Elder was in office, at least. They measure things as they measure them, and as Hugh, Ms. Rampell, and I (among many people) have all noted, you just have to realize that this is a measurement based on some guesswork, and note the possible inaccuracies. Simply calling them the product of a particular administration's propaganda machine without looking at the record is nonsense.

UPDATE 3: I finally got over my fear of spreadsheets and created my own chart of the employment to population ratio (EPOP) for American workers over 25 by education level. As you can see, it's getting worse for everyone:

Image credit: Chart by Cujo359 from BLS data using Libre Office

It's also plain that things are not going as badly for college graduates as they are for others. When you hear from folks in various news organizations that things are getting better, keep that in mind. High school graduates have seen a particularly large drop, and those with less than a high school education were not doing well previous to 2002.

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