Good Employment Reports Mask Troubling Trends

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Jobs in the technology field, from program designers to control board makers like the man above, are helping overall employment grow, despite the decline in manufacturing jobs.

By Reginald Stuart

Unemployment across the nation may be steadily decreasing from its high points of recent years, according to this month’s federal and state reports of record lows in unemployment. The nation’s 4.3 per cent unemployment rate and 1 million people plus gain in jobs headlines come with some potentially worrisome undercurrents, however, say local and national economists.

Indeed, the nation’s unemployment rate last month was at its lowest point in two years, according to a federal Bureau of Labor Statistics report issued earlier this month. The state’s labor department reported an unemployment rate across Tennessee of four percent, the lowest level since the state began keeping records, according to an announcement by Gov. Haslam.

It’s the facts behind the headlines that causes the unemployment celebration to be placed in a more sobering context, the interpretations of the labor report suggests, said the economists interviewed.

The persistent employment gap between races and gender groups continues, they said the study found. Unemployment among Whites with no high school diploma. 5.5 percent in the 2nd quarter of 2017 was lower than unemployment, 6.7 percent, among Blacks with some college education, the government’s most recent employment found.

Employment was uneven across the board, with technology jobs far surpassing Tennessee strong manufacturing jobs, the federal report found. The overall dip in unemployment may be due in part to a combination of people getting hired and more people dropping out of the hunt for a job, the statistics suggest, say those interviewed.

Also, the overall good news about the job market and economy is, as has historically been the case, fragile, they say. Some economic indicators are also suggesting the rebound may be reaching its peak.

“There are already signs of weakness,” said veteran economist, Dr. Soumen Ghosh a professor of economics at Tennessee State University. An example, he says, is sales of automobiles. Automobile manufacturing is a strong employer in Tennessee, he notes, adding any slippage in sales could eventually impact vehicle production needs.

The strong economy is “possibly not” at its best yet, Dr. Ghosh said. Still there are recurring weak spots across the board. The lower unemployment rate is in part explained by the suspected decline in the number of people actively looking for jobs, those who are “discouraged, disgruntled, stopped looking,” he said.

Ghosh’s assessment of the new jobs report echoes those offered by other economists across the country.

In Washington, D.C., William Spriggs, chief economist for the AFL-CIO, the major organized labor organization, noted several points in the new employment report that should be on concern.

“The Black labor force participation rate is really recovering,” said Spriggs, who said it began in 2011 when the economic stimulus program of President Obama began to slowly take effect.

For Whites, the lower unemployment rate is not solei due to the gains in White employment, Spriggs said. Echoing others, he too attributed the low unemployment rate to a rising drop out among male whites in seeking work.

Overall, Spriggs said, the recent good employment news should be viewed in a positive light, with the exceptions he and other mentioned.

“Everyone should be worried (about the employment picture) because we want the employment to population ration to be higher,” said Spriggs. He said the normal ratio is about 65 percent. Today, it’s around 63 per cent, he said.

By category, the federal labor report illuminated the persistent gaps in Black to white employment, despite the overall trend lines.

In the employment survey of people between ages 25 and 54, the segment of the population considered the base of the working population, the report said 3.1 percent of white in the work force were unemployed. For Blacks in the same age group, the unemployment rate was 6.3 percent.

Among Hispanics age 20 to 54, the national unemployment rate as of July, 2017, was 3.8 percent. For Asians, the comparable measure of unemployment was 2.8.

Dr. Ghosh, an economist for three decades, said there are significant challenges facing those who want to narrow the gap between Black and White employment, especially when it comes to Black men.

Most new jobs are “technology driven,” he said. “Historically,” African American males are do not pursue technology opportunities. Addressing that fact, he suggested incentives be given employers to “recruit” male Black candidates and institutions and employers engage in “more aggressive” marketing of opportunities in technology.

To help address that technology talent gap nationally, the Verizon Foundation last year embraced nearly a dozen colleges and universities nationally for a high school boot camp in technology for Black and Hispanic males. It awarded them tens of thousands of dollars as part of a multi-year effort to stimulate Black minority in technology careers starting before they near completion of high school in hopes the early run nurtures their interests in studying technology in college.

“All of us (academicians) should try to entice employers,” said Dr. Ghosh.

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