Personal anecdote time here. Unemployment is much in the news these days. And as I’ve mentioned once or twice, I’ve been on the job market for a while now, looking for full-time work in the nonprofit sector. I try not to dwell on it. I did a little tallying-up today, though, and determined that since last Labor Day—not quite eight months, just before I started this blog and (coincidentally) the economic meltdown began in earnest—I have applied for 78 different jobs. Out of that, I’ve had a grand total of seven interviews. And no offers.

Anyone who’s lucky enough not to have been on the market recently simply has no idea how competitive it is out there. Not long ago I interviewed for a management position at a prison reform organization. The Board members I spoke with were effusive about what a great candidate I was—both before and after they rejected me. I lost out on that one to a Pulitzer-winning former editor from a major Chicago newspaper, someone who had led investigative series covering the prison system… but who had recently been laid off, and was accepting a substantial salary decrease to work at this nonprofit organization.

That’s what it’s like these days.

Over just the last couple of months, I can think of at least four personal acquaintances who have suddenly lost their jobs. A bookstore manager: axed. A software developer: axed. A financial analyst: axed. A nonprofit fundraiser: axed. All of these, like me, were competent people with solid experience and multiple degrees. They’d all pursued what seemed like sensible white-collar career paths, in different fields and different parts of the country. The jobs simply aren’t there any more.

(That the jobs aren’t there doesn’t necessarily mean the work doesn’t still need to be done. But that’s a complaint for those who are still employed.)

Officially, the Bureau of Labor statistics says the unemployment rate now stands at about 8.5%. That’s bad enough, and it’s worse in some states. But that’s merely the “U3” rate:  the “U6” rate, which is most comparable to the calculations used from the Great Depression until revisions made in 1967, including discouraged and underemployed workers, stands at 16%. And according to the reliable, if you add in long-term discouraged workers (who were defined away in a 1994 revision), it’s closer to 20%.

That’s one in six Americans, arguably almost one in five, out of work or underemployed. It’s far worse than the Reagan recession (as if any doubt remained). These are numbers not seen in 70 years.

What this says about the underutilized productive capacity of this country is staggering. Even if stimulus spending and new “green industries” prompt a resumptions of modest economic growth resumes at some point in the foreseeable future (and right now GDP is solidly negative), it’ll take a lot more than that to soak up this kind of capacity. Indeed, it’s questionable whether any plausibly sustainable economy, absent the kind of financial bubbles that have kept us afloat in recent years, can make productive use of the available working population. There’s a serious systemic problem being exposed here. 

One thing that really chafes me about all this (setting aside the obvious personal frustrations) is the way certain Southern Republican governors have been demagoguing the issue. The very people whose party’s policies were most responsible for paving the way for this crisis are now standing in the way of helping their citizens through it. Rick Perry (TX), Bobby Jindal (LA), Haley Barbour (MI), Mark Sanford (SC)… all are refusing federal stimulus dollars that would extend unemployment benefits in their states. Already-devastated workforces are taking another hit so these governors can score political points by opposing hypothetical future taxes. I can’t imagine the strategy working—it seems fairly clear that most of the voters are more concerned about putting food on their tables now than about possible tax rates down the road—but the self-centered short-sightedness of politicos like these never fails to surpass even the lowest expectations.

It’s possible to imagine better times ahead… just barely, with effort. It’s not possible to imagine clowns like these, or their ideological allies in Washington, getting us there. We need leaders with the vision to work toward a sustainable economy, and confront the long-term issues that have been woefully neglected.

Of course, the long-term is speculative. In the short term, I just need a decent job.

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One Response to “The state of the job market”
  1. It’s as if the powers who would be want the work force as desperate and cowed as can be made possible. Certainly, the Detroit Three seem to have been pushing for it, and FIAT along with them if one reads between the lines of the Canadian coverage I’ve seen “from a certain point of view”. (Sorry, Messrs. Lucas and Guinness!)

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