The jobless numbers for Seattle are looking great. But some are still being left behind. Even education isn’t a guarantee of good employment in the youth-crazy tech sector. And a changed American economy makes for an insecure “new normal” for workers.
With 3.1 percent unemployment in May, it doesn’t get much better for Seattle’s King County.
Well, actually it did in April, at 2.8 percent. But variations aside, this is pretty close to full employment. What’s left is what economists call “frictional,” or people changing jobs, certain sectors contracting while others grow, and the unemployment rate mostly shows people in transition to the next workplace.
But it’s unclear whether the more than 38,000 people unemployed locally in this most recent report fit that category. Sure, I see “help wanted” signs all over town. And, yes, the labor force has added nearly 21,000 jobs over the year. Still, it’s safer to say we’re near full employment, but not quite there.
Understanding who is left out of the workforce and why is important not just for policymakers and educators. Given the degree to which one can ascribe today’s angry populism to the lack of good jobs — it’s in everyone’s interest to know more.
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A new study takes a look. Martha Ross and Natalie Holmes of the Brookings Institution crafted an examination of the unemployed, using Census American Community Survey material from 2013 to 2015. Their goal was to drill down to the community level to illuminate the unemployed adults age 25 to 64 in cities and counties across the nation.
The answers are as complex as the nation. Of course, some are out of the workforce while in college or being family caregivers. Others are too disabled to work.
Subtracting those people, 11.3 million nationally were not working or had not looked for work in the previous four weeks.
The numbers have no doubt improved some. But the labor-force participation rate, after four decades of growth, has been falling since the turn of the century. Retiring baby boomers don’t provide a complete explanation. So-called discouraged workers can’t find a job that fits their skills or pay needs. Also, it would be naive to assume discrimination in hiring has disappeared.
Ross and Holmes found that this adult group “is disproportionately composed of people with low levels of education, limited work experience, limited English proficiency, and other well-recognized barriers to employment.”
Seattle presented some interesting differences from the nation.
Nearly 44 percent of our out-of-work adults had bachelor’s degrees or higher. That’s more than double the national number of 20 percent.
In Pierce County, only 16.3 percent of the unemployed had the same education level. In Snohomish County the number was 20.5 percent.
It’s tempting to think of this large cohort of Seattle’s unemployed as either history-theater double majors working at Starbucks (shoulda studied coding) or better-off people in between well-paying gigs (must be nice).
But many may be like Len Cozza, a veteran of Microsoft, aQuantive, Paccar and Boeing, mostly in IT. At 57 and living with his wife in Lakewood, he hasn’t worked since 2011 after being laid off at Microsoft.
“I didn’t have many prospects since I no longer did technical work,” he told me, “and (now) everyone wants a manager who can also code at three-fourths the pay.”
He said his prospects to get back into tech “are pretty much zero. I knew someday I would ‘age out.’ I saw it happen to previous generations.”
What about other work? “I’m not much motivated to spend cash money to retrain for the lottery of low-wage, entry-level roles as an individual contributor with ‘flexible hours.’ I don’t think I can physically commute anymore and the opportunities in Pierce County are limited.”
Indeed, tech and engineering — the backbone of Seattle’s new superstar city economy — are up-or-out professions. In recent years the preference for young and malleable has grown pathological in much of the tech sector.
I still remember a haunting conversation with a young woman last year, saying she wanted to save as much as possible because she knew she would age out in her late 30s.
According to Seattle’s PayScale, which gathers employment and compensation data, the median age of Facebook employees is 29. For Amazon it’s 30 and Microsoft 33. The median age of all U.S. workers is 42.
Also, it takes longer for older people in general to get hired, especially if they are among the long-term unemployed. Often, they must settle for less pay if they do get a job.
Age discrimination is illegal, of course. But companies have plenty of ways to work around this legally. Even so, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is investigating job-search websites for alleged exclusionary features.
So Seattle is increasingly a young city, along with older people who have the money and/or job security, plus those who fall under the city’s relatively generous policies for low-income people. The city’s capacity to support the latter is not, however, unlimited.
But for Americans as a whole, the future carries a chill. Even outside of tech centers, older people who want, or desperately need, to work may be hard-pressed to find decent-paying jobs.
No wonder so many baby boomers approaching or past retirement are hanging on if they’re fortunate enough to have employment. And no wonder labor-force participation is still declining, even in the recovery.
Job creation has been slow. According to the Hamilton Project, the economy has still not quite made up for the Great Recession jobs gap. That’s the jobs lost, plus those that would have been created without the downturn.
Pick your blame: structural changes in the economy, mergers and industry consolidation, globalization and automation are among the top suspects. Watch Wall Street on any given day and some company’s stock price will rise when it announces layoffs.
Even with the unemployment rate low, people are being left out. It’s not the Great American Jobs Machine of my youth, nor the many ladders up, with job security at the end of them.
“Proven and promising practices,” many mentioned in the Brookings report, can help. But the new normal doesn’t feel right, and that will continue to fuel political discontent, too.