Still Not Enough Jobs to Go Around

The November Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows job openings were essentially flat in November, at 3.7 million (up by 11,000). The number of job openings, which had been improving fairly steadily since reaching its low of 2.2 million in July 2009, has stalled in recent months; there has been no improvement in job openings since March 2012.

Layoffs decreased by 17,000 in November. This is positive news, although layoffs are not currently the primary concern; as this figure shows, despite month-to-month volatility in the data, layoffs have been at prerecession levels for more than two years. The primary concerns in the labor market are job openings and hiring. Hires were essentially flat in November, up by 3,000.  Like job openings, hires have made no progress since the first quarter of this year. This lack of progress is bad news because there is a long way to go before hiring returns to healthy levels, as it remains far below its prerecession level.

In November, the number of job seekers fell somewhat; the total number of unemployed workers declined by 206,000, to 12.0 million (unemployment data are from the Current Population Survey and can be found here). The “job-seekers ratio”—the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings—was unchanged in November, at 3.3-to-1.


The job-seekers ratio has been improving fairly steadily since its peak of 6.7-to-1 in July 2009. Despite this improvement, odds remain stacked against job seekers; the ratio has been 3.3-to-1 or greater for more than four years. A job-seekers ratio above 3-to-1 means there are no jobs for more than two out of three unemployed workers. To put today’s ratio of 3.3-to-1 in perspective, it is useful to note that the highest the ratio ever got in the early 2000s downturn was 2.9-to-1 in September 2003. In a labor market with strong job opportunities, the ratio would be close to 1-to-1, as it was in December 2000 (when it was 1.1-to-1).

The JOLTS data are also useful for diagnosing what’s behind our persistently high unemployment. In today’s economy, unemployed workers far outnumber job openings in every sector, showing that the main problem is a broad-based lack of demand for workers—and not, as is often claimed, available workers lacking the skills needed for the sectors with job openings.

—With research assistance from Natalie Sabadish.

Heidi Shierholz is an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, specializing in labor markets, economic inequality and the minimum wage.


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