Pennsylvania (PA) Unemployment: Still a Lot of Work to Do

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases March unemployment statistics on Friday, economists will be looking to see if the trend toward recovery is reflected in the latest numbers.

February’s numbers showed that the nation experienced a net job loss of 36,000, with the unemployment rate hovering for a second month at 9.7 percent. The unemployment rate rose in Pennsylvania in February by a tenth of a percentage point to 8.9 percent, while the state had a net loss of 16,000 jobs.

That does not mean Pennsylvania accounted for 44 percent of the national jobs lost, said Troy Thompson, the spokesman for the state’s Department of Labor and Industry. Instead, when all the many states’ job gains and losses were added together, the net loss nationwide was 36,000. Virginia, for instance, lost 32,600 jobs, Michigan lost 16,000 and Florida gained 26,300.

“It’s the gains minus the losses, and whatever is left over is what we wind up with,” Mr. Thompson said. “This is a one-month snapshot of our employment situation.”

Taken as a snapshot, the month included some potentially frightening news. For instance, the education and health sector in the state lost 7,800 jobs, although it was still up 6,200 jobs from a year ago.

Mr. Thompson said the same sort of one-month loss in education and health care occurred in October, only to see a rebound the next month.

That sort of bumpiness in the numbers is the same reason no one was celebrating the potentially good news that manufacturing in the state had gained 1,600 jobs in February.

Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, agreed it is the trends that matter. Right now, the trend is one of slowing job losses and maybe even a slight gain, as the national unemployment rate has dropped from its high for this recession of 10.1 percent in October 2009.

“We’re trending up [toward adding jobs],” he said, “but way too slowly.”

In order for the labor market to absorb the natural gains in the working population from college and high school graduations as well as people moving into the labor force for other reasons, such as their children hitting school age, the nation needs to add about 150,000 new jobs a month.

About this time last year, the nation was losing average of 600,000 jobs a month, which put the labor market in a huge hole.

Pennsylvania has lost a total of 264,300 jobs since November 2007 when the headline on the monthly news release from the state Department of Labor and Industry proclaimed, “Jobs Hit Record High in November, Unemployment Down.”

The recession officially began the next month.

Even in November 2007 with record high employment, there were just 3,000 jobs added in Pennsylvania — about half as many needed to keep up with the number of people entering the state’s labor force.

Mr. Price said the last time the state’s employment numbers rose that much was May 2007, which also was the last time the nation added enough jobs to keep up with the growth.

While in February the state unemployment rate, 8.9 percent, was still below the nation’s 9.7 percent, the commonwealth has seen unemployment slowly ticking up toward the national rate.

“I’m still expecting the Pennsylvania rate to move higher over the next couple of months,” Mr. Price said. “I think we’re going to close the gap.”

Overall he is seeing what economists across the country are seeing: It is going to be a long climb to get the employment numbers out of the hole that has been dug these last couple of years.

According to the state’s labor department, more than half a million Pennsylvanians, 577,000, were unemployed in February. While the state does not keep track of the length of unemployment, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does for the nation as a whole. Nationally, of the 14.9 million people who were unemployed in February, 6.1 million of them, or 40.9 percent, were out of work for longer than six months.

By comparing the numbers to be released Friday with the past few months’, economists hope to know if the recovery is starting to take off or if the jobs market is just in a holding pattern.



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