TEXAS VIEW: Unemployment numbers hit the flood

By The Dallas Morning News

When it comes to the economy, one of the numbers we all want to see at new lows is the unemployment rate. So we’ll offer three cheers for the new jobs numbers out Friday. The national unemployment rate hit 3.9 percent, the lowest level since December 2000.

In our mind, there are at least two takeaways here. The first is good news. Fewer Americans are claiming new unemployment benefits, and initial jobless claims are near the lowest levels since the 1970s. That means American workers are better off, even as some are still digging out from the Great Recession of 2007-09.

The second takeaway isn’t good news, but we hope it will lead to new opportunities for the portion of American workers who haven’t been inching their way up. And the number of people in that category is larger than the unemployment numbers might suggest.

There are millions of Americans who have part-time gigs but who need full-time work. There are also millions of Americans who sit outside of the labor market, many of whom want a job but have stopped looking.

It’s hard to measure how large this latter group is because there are many reasons why someone might exit the workforce.

But one economic measure that gives us a sense of the problem is the civilian labor force participation rate. In April that stat was 62.8 percent. Back in 2000, it topped 67 percent and as late as the start of the Great Recession it stood above 66 percent. That may not sound like a big difference, but it represents millions of Americans who aren’t earning an income.

How can this be when the economy continues to create new jobs? It is true that the economy continues to grow. Friday’s stats tell us 164,000 jobs were added in April. But the economy needs to add about 150,000 jobs every month to keep pace with population growth. So even as the economy expands, some workers can’t find work. Often those workers lack skills employers are looking for.

To put it in terms that hit a little closer to home. North Texas is one of the fast-growing regions in the country with an unemployment rate of about 3.7 percent. But many employers can’t find workers with the skills they need.

Many openings are for jobs that require training beyond high school — a two-year associate’s degree, certification, occupational licensing, or apprenticeships — but not a four-year college degree. JP Morgan Chase & Co. estimates that about 960,000 of these jobs are available in North Texas as employers look for electricians, dental hygienists, paralegals and information technology workers.

In addition to the skills gap, other barriers include high incarceration rates (even a long-ago conviction can keep a worker out of the labor market), child care policies and misaligned job-training programs.

Our hope is that as the labor market remains tight, employers find ways to help workers overcome barriers so that more Texans and more Americans find the work they need.