The Real Weak Spot of U.S. Labor Markets

Evan Soltas is a contributor to Bloomberg View.
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First, don't fret over today's news that the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits increased by 16,000 to 360,000, a two-month high. It was a particularly tough week for Labor Department economists to adjust for seasonal swings, and layoffs had been unusually low in comparison to economic growth and the rate of hiring.

If you really want something to worry about on the employment front, take a closer look at last week'sjobs report. In particular, at a telling, but largely obscure, statistic on unemployment among Americans who are entering the labor force for the first time or are rejoining it.

Some 4.6 million of them can't find a job. That's three full percentage points of the total unemployment rate, now at 7.6 percent. But unlike the unemployment rate, unemployment of new entrants and re-entrants hasn't budged since the end of the recession.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics via St. Louis Federal Reserve

Why should we look at that figure? Because it gets to the heart of what a labor market should do: Match new workers, not just ones with experience, with jobs.

The weakness of the economic recovery explains most of this. The U.S. labor market is saturated with the overqualified and the experienced. Businesses that want to hire can skim the top; the bottom curdles.

And this type of unemployment reveals why recessions are costly: not so much the production left unmade, but rather the opportunities lost for more marginal workers to gain skills and experience. And those losses compound. One study found that a spell of unemployment during young adulthood -- ages 16 to 23 -- creates a wage penalty of 12 percent to 15 percent at age 42.

Economists tend to worry in particular about high unemployment among such labor-market outsiders. It might explain why -- and predict when -- unemployment rates can be persistently higher after a recession.

Theideais that incumbent workers with bargaining power set wages. This tends to lock the unemployed out of a job, because incumbents have no interest in letting wages fall to the point where employers are willing to increase hiring. A related theory says that as the unemployed go longer and longer without a job, their influence on wage levels declines.

Iwrote last month about the slowdown in labor-market churn, the flow of workers into and out of jobs. That measure was, like this one, less sunny than better-known indicators such as the monthly change in payrolls or the unemployment rate. There's a common thread here: Metrics that more directly reflect the job-matching role of labor markets show them to be much less healthy.

There's a way, though, to see unemployment among entrants and re-entrants as a hopeful sign. It's the first step for those who dropped out of the labor force during the recession to start the search for work again. On the other hand, the figures may also understate lock-out, because many workers who are interested in work aren't counted in the labor force.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Evan Soltas at