Jobs picture shows signs of slow gains, even among discouraged

Nov. 2, 2012 at 11:05 AM ET

The job market appears to slowly be picking up steam, and that seems to gradually be helping even the most downtrodden workers: Those who are so discouraged that they’ve given up looking for work.

“We’re seeing all of the detailed measures of frustration disappearing, and that’s really key,” said Joel Naroff, an economist with Naroff Economic Advisors.

A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who aren’t currently looking for work because they don’t think there’s a job out there for them, hit 14.6 percent in October, a slight improvement over September.

In general, the so-called “alternative measure of labor underutilization” has been hovering between 14 and 15 percent since last winter.

That’s still high by historical standards, and a sign that the job market remains much weaker than five years ago. But it’s a significant improvement over last year, when it was around 16 percent. And it’s much better than 2009, when it was as high as 17 percent.

The broader measure – which some politicians have called the “real” unemployment rate - includes people who are considered marginally attached to the labor force because they looked for work sometime in the last 12 months, but not in recent weeks.

 It also includes people who are working part-time but would like to be working full time.

The most worrisome subset of people included in that measure are called discouraged workers. They’ve given up looking for work because they simply don’t think they can find a job.

About 813,000 people reported that that they were that discouraged in October. That’s actually up slightly from September, but it’s down by more than 100,000 as compared to this time last year. And it’s a significant improvement over 2010, when more than 1.2 million people considered themselves discouraged.

When looking at such a small subset of the employment picture, economists tend to give more weight to long-term trends than to month-to-month changes, which can jump around more.

In all, the Labor Department reported Friday that the economy created 171,000 jobs in October.

The unemployment rate, which is measured using a separate set of data, rose slightly to 7.9 percent.

A rising unemployment rate would seem to be a bad thing, but in this case economists say it actually may not be such a worrisome sign. That’s because the data showed that the rise came as more people jumped into the job market and started once again actively looking for a job.

A person is only counted as unemployed if they are out of work and actively looking for work.

 “The reason the unemployment rate rose is that, while a lot of people did find jobs, an awful lot of people started looking once again for jobs,” Naroff said. “And that’s actually a good sign, because people don’t start looking for jobs and enter the labor force unless they have some sense that they have can actually find a job.”

Still, any improvement in the labor market has come slowly, and quite painfully for those who are out of work.

“Clearly, there (are) too many people who would like to find a job but can’t or are discouraged,” Naroff said. “But the economy is beginning to pick up steam. It’s not growing rapidly but it’s growing better.”

Related: Economy creates more jobs than expected

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