Christopher Hart of Middle River, left, who is hoping to find… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
The odds continue to be stacked against the nation's unemployed, with little change since the depths of the Great Recession last year.
Just ask Christopher Hart, a laid-off machinist from Middle River who has been out of work for seven months and living on extended unemployment benefits. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics released this month, five unemployed workers are vying for every job opening.
"It's bad out there," said Hart, 43.
Bad is right. Despite some improvement in the economy, the number of unemployed workers continues to far outweigh available jobs. Nationally there were 14.6 million unemployed workers in June and 2.9 million job openings. And the competition for those job openings could be even stiffer because the actual number of underemployed or out-of-work Americans may be significantly higher than official figures suggest.
The so-called job openings and labor turnover survey is the less frequently cited work force statistic, an often-overlooked cousin of the unemployment rate. While the unemployment rate has generally been improving in Maryland, the available-jobs survey provides another perspective on the plight of those looking for work.
"There's this enormous backlog of unemployed workers, and while we're adding jobs now, it's just not enough," said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "We're not seeing the job openings to put that big backlog to work."
Prospects have improved since November, when the ratio of unemployed to job openings peaked at 6.2 to 1 after months of sharp job losses in the U.S. But the current job shortage is worse than at the worst point in the previous recession in the early part of this decade, Shierholz said. A healthy job market should have no more than 1.5 available jobs per unemployed person, the level in 2007 before the start of the recession, she said.
"This is a hellish musical chairs," she said. "There's one chair with one job, and four people left with nothing."
Those odds are bad enough, but economists suspect the level of competition is really much greater and likely to worsen.
Not only are 14.6 million workers counted as unemployed, but millions more have dropped out of the labor force or have settled for part-time work. In the U.S., about 5.9 million people have stopped looking but still want a job, and another 8.5 million are working part time but would like to work full time, according to the Labor Department.
Counting those people, many of whom are likely to re-enter the full-time labor force eventually, would increase the candidate-to-job opening ratio, said Charles W. McMillion, chief economist with MBG Information Services in Washington.
"If there really are 2.9 million legitimate job openings, then the number of people looking versus the number of job openings would be much higher than five to one," McMillion said.
The gloomy statistics mean lengthy spans of unemployment have become the norm. And many people are either settling for less desirable jobs or leaving their communities to work somewhere else, McMillion said.
Few know those realities better than the thousands of Baltimore-area residents like Hart who have been flocking to government-run, one-stop job centers to search for employment and connect with job skills training or other support.
Maryland centers helped just over 50,000 people in June, including about 27,600 in Baltimore and surrounding counties, an increase from about 48,000 in the state and 25,000 in the Baltimore region a year ago, according to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. The agency and local governments operate 34 job centers in 12 regions in the state.
On a recent weekday morning, people filled cubicles lining the walls of the Eastpoint Workforce Development Center, in a strip shopping center across Eastern Avenue from Eastpoint Mall.
They sat before computers checking e-mail, navigating job and company websites, updating resumes and filling out online applications. Sometimes a staff member would peer over someone's screen to answer questions and offer advice.
Gregoire Adams, 50, of Towson spends hours at these computers nowadays. He was laid off as a carpenter more than a year ago, when the small building contractor he worked for shut its doors after customers could no longer afford the going rates.
Before Adams came to the one-stop job center, he had never used a computer and had no e-mail access. He quickly learned that e-mail and online applications are often the only link to employers with jobs.
Still, it often seems he's not connecting at all; the few interviews he's landed have led no further. "You get interviews, but you don't get a job," he said.
The unemployment checks help, and his wife is working. And when times get tough, he says he's sustained by his faith.