Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Ottawa's Employment Situation

by Levi Russell
This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Herald.

At the end of each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases a report detailing the number of jobs added to the U.S. economy during the previous month. The November report, released on the 7th of this month, was a bit of a disappointment. Economists had expected 198,000 additional jobs to be added in November, but the report indicated only 155,000 were added. One bright spot, the transportation sector, added 25,000 jobs nationwide.

The relatively good performance of the transportation sector made me think of all the new intermodal jobs being added in our area. This prompted me to look at Franklin County’s employment situation over the last few years. Franklin County’s labor force participation rate has been increasing steadily since the recovery from the 2009 recession. Labor force participation is the number of people in the labor force divided by the population aged 16 to 64. What does it mean to be “in the labor force?” Isn’t that just everyone with a job?

Not really. The labor force is defined as people who are working or actively seeking work. My wife Lana, who spends the majority of her waking hours as the primary caregiver of our children, is not in the labor force. Don’t get me wrong, she works very hard, but she would not part of the labor force. She just isn’t interested in working outside the home right now and so isn’t actively seeking work. Other people between the ages of 16 and 64 might leave the labor force when, after seeking work for a long time, simply give up and find another arrangement to provide for themselves.

So it’s good to see that, along with several years of population growth (with the exception of 2015), Franklin County’s labor force participation rate has increased. More people call Franklin County home, and a higher percentage of the total population of the county have been entering the labor force over the last several years. Another good sign for Franklin County’s economy is a very low unemployment rate. Currently, the unemployment here is at 3%, which is the lowest it has been since 2003. From the recession in 2009 to 2017, unemployment steadily declined here in Franklin County. Once the unemployment rate started approaching 3% in late 2017, unemployment has been relatively flat.

This isn’t necessarily a bad sign. There will always be some unemployment in a dynamic economy. People change jobs and might be unemployed for a short period between them. Some people’s skill sets become obsolete and they have to find training to get them into a new job. Looking at data on the unemployment history of Franklin County, it makes sense that unemployment leveled off here around 3%. This seems to be Franklin’s natural rate of unemployment.

But, similar to the labor force participation rate, the unemployment rate is complicated. People might enter or leave the labor force for good or bad reasons, and the unemployment rate may go up or down for good or bad reasons. The unemployment rate can go down — which sounds like a good thing in general — because some people give up looking for work and, by definition, leave the labor force! This may be a good thing, my wife is certainly happy being outside the labor force, but it may also represent people in very bad situations.

The takeaway point here is that you should always look beyond the headline unemployment number. Has the population grown? Has the labor force grown or shrunk? Has anyone looked into the reasons some people are either leaving or entering the labor force in greater numbers than before? Answers to these questions help us understand what is driving that headline unemployment number.

For example, if the population is growing and the labor force participation rate is growing because investors are creating many new jobs and people are able to get the skills to fill those jobs, the unemployment rate might actually tick up for a short period of time while people leave their current jobs, get trained, and move into better-paying jobs! We might think an increase in the unemployment rate is bad, but in this case it’s a small price to pay for a long-run benefit.

We might also see what appear to be negative effects on employment data when good things are happening. If innovation is driving the cost of the goods we buy every day lower — relative to the wages we earn — we may see people leave the labor force because their spouses can earn adequate income for the family. A decrease in labor force participation from a lack of opportunity over a long period of time is a bad thing, but people might also leave the labor force by choice.

In terms of overall employment, Ottawa is doing well and has been steadily improving since the end of the most recent recession. A larger percentage of the population are in the labor force and fewer people in the labor force are having trouble finding work. Next time I will discuss the economics of federal policy changes coming soon for agriculture, one of the county’s most important industries.

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