When is a good number not necessarily good news? When it’s Pennsylvania’s falling unemployment rate.
The commonwealth’s March number fell to 7.5 percent, down from its peak of 8.7 percent in February/March 2010. But that’s only part of the story. As is the experience nationally, jobless numbers are dropping for reasons that have nothing to do with people finding work.
Americans having been leaving the workforce in significant numbers as the first baby boomers retire, others decide to become stay-at-home parents and still others just give up on the job search entirely. These latter, the so-called “discouraged” workers, are not included in unemployment statistics. Also excluded are those who have settled for underemployment or part-time work.
The latest Pennsylvania Fast Facts report, released April 27 by the Department of Labor and Industry, shows the number of discouraged workers in the commonwealth grew to 42,900 from 23,200 between the last quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012. That’s up from the same quarter a year ago and the highest it’s been since the start of 2010. The “underemployment” rate stood at 14.4 percent in March.
But L&I Secretary Julia Hearthway says it doesn’t have to be this way. Confirmed barely a year ago, the former chief deputy attorney general has been using the past months to delve into operations in her vast department, which is responsible for everything from boiler inspections to workforce development.
Her conclusion on employment: The jobs are there and businesses want to hire. There is just a huge “mismatch” in getting the right employers and candidates together. The problem is an “archaic” system in which employers advertise openings and hope workers with the right skills find them. Not only is that inefficient, Hearthway says, but roughly 40 percent of job openings are never even posted. It’s no wonder employers complain they can’t find qualified workers, while their potential employees sink into despair.
So Job One for Hearthway is developing methods to build better connections in the employment system. That can be done within the current budget and using “off the shelf” solutions, she says. Hearthway also is a proponent of employer incentives that would allow new hires to continue collecting jobless benefits for a set period during on-the-job training and for keeping them on the job.
This is the kind of approach Pennsylvania needs. A recent survey of the nation’s CEOs gave our workforce four out of five stars. That workforce is an asset that should be working for Pennsylvania’s future now. Fast-tracking improvements in workforce development should be the secretary’s top priority.