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Measuring Joblessness Through An Educational Lens

A job applicant listens to a recruiter at a job fair in San Jose, Calif.
Paul Sakuma
A job applicant listens to a recruiter at a job fair in San Jose, Calif.

Economist Bill Rodgers has a name for the recovery — and it's not a very nice one.

Rodgers, a professor at Rutgers University, calls it "bifurcated" because people who have college degrees are getting hired, but those who didn't finish school are sitting on the sidelines. Many have given up on their search for work.

"This horrible recession, combined with this weak recovery, has lead to this bifurcated set of outcomes," he says.


The nation's unemployment rate fell slightly in March to 8.8 percent; more than 200,000 jobs were added to the payroll. But the unemployment rate leaves out many people — including those who have stopped looking for jobs and have dropped out of the labor force.

"One of the things that I think is sort of an intuitive idea is that if the unemployment rate is improving, that's really only good news if we see a bigger share of the labor force that's working," says Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute.

Shierholz says she thinks the employment-to-population ratio, which measures the share of the U.S. population that has a job, is a more accurate reflection of the unemployment picture. The ratio has hardly budged over the past year. That means the percentage of people working in this country hasn't changed though the unemployment rate has ticked down.

Left Out, Going Back To School

The unemployment rate is calculated based on the labor force, so that excludes people such as Valerie Young.


Young has four children and a husband who's on disability. The family lives just outside Salt Lake City. Young left college early to get married and raise a family. When her husband got sick, she had to jump into the workforce.

But Young says that plan didn't work out; she searched for work for three years.

"Even though I have put in hundreds of applications and dozens and dozens of resumes, employers tell me in interviews that they are looking for someone with more education — a college degree — or an associate's degree," she says.

So, Young has taken out a loan to go back to college. She starts next week, and ultimately hopes to go to nursing school.

Young's story is typical. Shawn Smith is also feeling the effects of the bifurcated recovery. The 31-year-old moved to three states in as many years looking for work. But nothing stuck.

While he was in college in the 1990s, he was making good money working as a landscaper. So he decided to drop out to work full-time.

Living At Home

Now, he lives with his parents in Largo, Fla., while he's looking for a job. But he's having trouble finding any opportunities because he didn't finish college, he says.

For people like Smith, who don't have a college degree, the situation hasn't even bottomed out yet.

In 2007, before the recession, about 70 percent of people who attended some college, but didn't have a bachelor's degree were working, according to the Economic Policy Institute. When the recession hit, that number dropped to about 65 percent and it keeps declining.

"And when jobs do become available, when there are literally millions of very desperate people out there, workers with higher education can go down the ladder," says Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute. "They can take jobs that are below their skills and experience. And workers with lower educational credentials can fall off the ladder."

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