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A ratio for labor market tightness

There are just 60 unemployed workers for every 100 job openings

The unemployment rate is the highest-profile labor market data point, but there are plenty of other ways to gain additional insight into the job market. One such figure is the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings. It’s a straightforward statistic created by combining two key BLS series: unemployment level (via the Current Population Survey) and total nonfarm job openings (via the JOLTS survey).

Exits from the labor force during the COVID-19 pandemic have been analyzed, with research conducted into the reasons for exits and the likelihood of re-entry. It’s led to some debate as to the true tightness of the labor market— after all, total nonfarm payrolls are still 2 million below January 2020 numbers. This ratio sidesteps all that, giving us a measure of labor tightness that reflects firms’ attempts to hire at the present moment.

After reaching a high of 6.5 unemployed workers for every job opening in July 2009, the ratio fell over the next decade to 0.8 in February 2020. It rose to 4.9 unemployed per job opening during the COVID-19 recession, but has since fallen steadily as economic conditions have improved. As of January 2022, it reached the lowest ratio since the BLS began collecting JOLTS data in 2000: just 60 unemployed workers for every 100 job openings. This aligns with reports of widespread labor shortages across several industries; when looking only at the current labor force, there just aren’t enough job seekers for the current level of positions open.

How this graph was created: Search FRED for “Job Openings: Total Nonfarm” (JTSJOL). Set level in thousands, seasonally adjusted. Combine with “Unemployment Level,” thousands of persons, seasonally adjusted (UNEMPLOY). Divide UNEMPLOY by JTSJOL (formula b/a).

Suggested by Nathan Jefferson.

Labor market tightness

Unemployment is high during a recession, and job vacancies are numerous during an economic boom. That should surprise no one. This is why these two measures are useful in determining the state of an economy throughout its business cycle. One way to do this is to look at labor market tightness, defined as the ratio of vacancies to unemployment, which we show above. One should realize, though, that while the number of unemployed is reasonably well estimated from surveys, the number of vacancies is estimated with much less confidence. Indeed, at least in the U.S., it is not mandatory to post openings at an employment agency. In fact, some statistical agencies used to measure the square footage of job ads in newspapers, which obviously isn’t possible now that jobs are advertised in many different media and likely multiple times. In the U.S., a survey across businesses about their openings has been conducted only since 2000.

How this graph was created: Search for “job vacancies” and select the monthly seasonally adjusted series for the U.S. Then add the series “unemployment level,” making sure to check “Modify existing series 1.” Finally, create your own data transformation with the formula a/b/1000.

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann

View on FRED, series used in this post: LMJVTTUVUSM647S, UNEMPLOY

A greater number of workers still remain outside the labor force

Pre-pandemic trends vs. current levels

The labor force is defined as the people who currently hold a job or are actively seeking a job. A person who is not employed and also is not looking to become employed isn’t considered part of the labor force.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, businesses closed. A larger-than-usual portion of the labor force was suddenly without work. Some got other jobs, some kept looking, but millions left the labor force. This departure had a multitude of causes, such as early retirement, self-isolation due to the pandemic, taking care of loved ones, or frustration with an unsuccessful job search and continued access to increased federal unemployment benefits.

The FRED graph above shows that the number of people outside the labor force spiked in the spring of 2020. That number declined, as more workers re-entered the labor force over the next year, but the number is still well above what it was before the pandemic.

The red line in the graph is the 5-year trend line from January 2015 to January 2020, which we extended to the current time: More people are still outside the labor force than we would have expected, based on the trend leading up to the pandemic. In fact, there are 2.2 million more people outside the labor force than was expected, which can help explain the current tightness in the labor force.

How this graph was created: On FRED search for “not in labor force” and select the series. Set the start/end dates to January 2015 and 2020. Export the data by clicking “Download.” From your spreadsheet software, calculate a trend line from January 2015 to January 2020. Then go back to the FRED graph and click “Edit Graph.” From the “Add Line” tab, use the “Create user-defined line” to create the red line. Start the line in January 2015 with the value 93510 and end on the present day with a value of 97689. Finally, set the graph to display from 2014.

Suggested by Jack Fuller and Charles Gascon.

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