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Despite continued mixed signals from the U.S. economy, several recent indicators are pointing to improved conditions in the labor market. Those signs should be particularly welcome to the nation’s long-term unemployed, whose numbers have fallen in recent months but remain in the millions.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that there were 4.8 million job openings at the end of August, up about 200,000 from July and the highest level since January 2001, according to its latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover report. The report also said that over the 12-month period ending August 2014, hires totaled 56.2 million and separations (i.e., quits, layoffs and other discharges) totaled 53.6 million, leading to a net employment gain of 2.6 million during that time.
The number of Americans filing for initial unemployment insurance claims fell to a 14-year low of 264,000 in early October, according to an Oct. 16, 2014, report from news agency Reuters. The four-week moving average of unemployment claims, which helps to reduce volatility in the weekly numbers, also fell to its lowest level since 2000, Reuters reported.
Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) research shows that conditions have been improving steadily since 2013. Data released in June 2014 from SHRM’s human capital benchmarking database show the U.S. labor force had a turnover rate of 17 percent in 2013, up from 14 percent in 2012. The SHRM metric covers voluntary (e.g., quits) and involuntary (e.g., layoffs) turnover, but the rate increase is more likely because of voluntary turnover, considering the fact that layoffs have been subdued and job opportunities have increased as of late.
Some of the U.S. metro regions with the highest turnover rates have unemployment levels near or below the U.S. average, according to SHRM’s Metro Economic Outlook reports. Dallas, for example, had a 22 percent turnover rate in 2013 and an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent in August 2014, below the national average of 6.1 percent. Denver, with a 20 percent turnover rate, had a jobless rate of 4.8 percent in August.
What all this means is that the healing process continues for the U.S. labor market, which still includes 3 million of the long-term unemployed (those without work for 27 weeks or more), according to the September 2014 Employment Situation report from BLS. The number of long-term unemployed individuals was down by 1.2 million in September, compared with a year ago, but those individuals still accounted for nearly one-third (32 percent) of the nation’s jobless in September, according to the BLS.
One workforce development official said she wants to take SHRM’s national effort to combat long-term unemployment and “drive it locally” in the Memphis, Tenn. region.
“We need to get a dialogue started,” said Patricia Myers, a business services analyst with Memphis-based Workforce Investment Network, a division of the federally-funded Workforce Investment Act program that serves that region’s labor market needs. “This has to be a movement. It can’t just be a program that says ‘employers should hire the long-term unemployed.’ [Everyone has] to change their mindset.”
Myers said she has already drawn some support from a volunteer network called The Career Transition Groups, or CT Groups, also based in Memphis. The local, virtual volunteer organization distributes job postings from companies participating in The CT Groups’ network. Group members meet regularly at houses of worship in the Memphis region, providing career counseling advice and job search assistance to those who are out of work.
The local organization’s founder, Mike Zurkammer, uses the word “painful” to describe the impact of long-term unemployment on the Memphis economy. Zurkammer himself was a victim of layoffs in 2001, as a result of the technology bubble that hit the U.S. economy. The group is staffed by about 50 volunteers who are currently serving 2,700 jobless people in the Memphis area.
“Some [people] who surrendered to unemployment are now seen as ‘damaged goods’ by some HR [departments],” Zurkammer said in an e-mail. “People are working two or three jobs to try and make ends meet. [They] feel they are due a fair shot at proving their worth versus classification as ‘unfit’ due to circumstances, and not ability or attitude.”
Among the topics frequently covered during the group’s meetings with job seekers are:
The importance of working with recruiters.
How to leverage social media sites like LinkedIn.
Specific interview questions that are typically asked and appropriate responses to them.
Some of the Memphis group’s members have found work, Zurkammer said, but there are many more that continue to need help.
Myers, a member of the SHRM-Memphis chapter, said the long-term unemployed issue needs to be addressed at the corporate level now, so that volunteer efforts, like the ones that are active in her community, can be successful.
“If HR people don’t start thinking about this and talking it up with their management teams, it’s never going to change for these people,” she said.
Joseph Coombs is a senior analyst for workforce trends at SHRM.
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