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Has Structural Unemployment Become Important in the United States?

From the Becker-Posner blog:

The persistently high unemployment rate in the United States during the Great Recession has led to claims that much of American unemployment is “structural”. According to this view, the demand for workers by companies is insufficient to employ all unemployed workers because there is a mismatch between the skills possessed by many American workers and the skills required by companies. The structural advocates believe the skills demanded by companies tend to exceed or otherwise be different from the skills possessed by many unemployed workers. As a result, so goes the argument, these unemployed workers cannot find jobs and remain unemployed for a long time.

Although I will argue that not much of American unemployment is “structural” or due to such a mismatch, the structural theory is on the surface supported by the large number of long-term unemployed, the most disturbing feature of American unemployment during the Great Recession. Structural advocates claim that unemployed individuals with skills that are only weakly demanded face prospects of remaining unemployed for a long time. Since the unemployment rate rose above 9% in 2009, the fraction of the unemployed who have been out of work for over 6 months has grown to over 40%. Prior to the start of the recession in 2008, long-term unemployed were a little under 20% of total unemployment. Although long-term unemployment usually rises during prolonged recessions, the magnitude of the rise during the current recession is unusual for the United States.

While long-term unemployment in the American labor market jumped up during this recession to unusual heights, there is no evidence of any large mismatch in US labor markets prior to the recession. In 2007, for example, the total unemployment rate was still under 5%, and less than 20% of the unemployed were out of work for six months or more. It is not credible to believe that the underlying structure of labor demand in the US has shifted so much in the few years since the recession began that almost 4% of workers (0.4x9%) will not have employable skills once the American economy gets out of its doldrums, and begins to grow at its “normal” long-term rate of about 2% per capita per year.

The JOLTS monthly data prepared by the federal government on new hires and job vacancies in the United States show over 3 million job vacancies in recent months, and over 2 million openings even during months at the height of the recession. Given this large number of job openings, I conclude that the millions of individuals who have been out of work for 6 months or more could find jobs if they are willing to be flexible on wages and other conditions of employment. Put a little differently, millions of job openings each month in a labor market with considerable flexibility in wages, which describes the American labor market, makes it really hard to argue that many of the long-term unemployed cannot find jobs.

 How then can we explain the high and persistent levels of long-term unemployment during this recession? One clearly important factor is the extension in July of 2010 of unemployment insurance to cover workers who have been out of work for 99 weeks instead of having their payments end after 6 months of unemployment. Studies have shown that many unemployed find jobs just about when their unemployment payments expire, after 6 months of collecting benefits under the old system. It does not require any complicated economic analysis to conclude that the extension of unemployment payments to 99 weeks will encourage many individuals to remain unemployed after 6 months of unemployment, although they would have found jobs under the old rules. They will turn down jobs that may not be as good as those they had before becoming unemployed in order to continue to collect unemployment benefits. For that reason I opposed the extension to 99 weeks in my post on 7/25/2010 (“Should Unemployment Compensation be Extended?”).

Long-term unemployment may also partly be the result of uneven employment opportunities and uneven prospects for housing prices in different states and regions of the US. States like California, Nevada, and Florida that had major construction, jobs, and housing booms in the years before the onset of the recession suffered the largest hits to employment and to housing prices. Unemployed workers in such states may be reluctant to move to states where more jobs are available at good wages since they may be involved in foreclosure litigation and other issues related to the depressed housing market. They may also turn down jobs that pay much less then the unusually good wages they had during the boom times to continue to collect unemployment benefits for up to 2 years.

Other factors are also involved in the sharp rise in the number of workers unemployed for over 6 months.  Yet overall they do not justify the conclusion that many unemployed individuals are unable to find jobs because the American economy has too little demand for their set of skills.


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