Maine unemployment is down from 2007. Underemployment is not

Explaining what variations in the unemployment rate mean is tough. The standard measure doesn’t really capture the elements of the first question you’d likely ask a friend: “How’s work?”

Alternative measures of the jobless rate by state are available and get a little closer at answering the question of “how’s work?” for entire states, but there’s still plenty of details missing that you and I would like to know.

After publishing a story Monday on the industries that have lost or gained the most payroll jobs since the recession, a few comments rolled in about unemployment in the state — how many people have just stopped looking and how many people have jobs but aren’t working as much as they’d like?

On those topics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has alternative measures, getting at more detailed categories of unemployment and at least one specific type of under-employment.

The numbers show more people who are looking for a job of some kind are able to find it. The standard measure of unemployment — at 3.4 percent in April — aims to track those who looked for work in the last month but are still without a job.

Alternative measures of unemployment or underemployment also count those “marginally attached,” or those estimated to want work but have been discouraged or decided not to look for work in the past month for any reason. The combined number of those unemployed and marginally attached is down compared with before the recession.

Meanwhile, the estimates of those marginally attached and those who want full-time work but only found 35 hours or less of work per week are both up, comparing the first quarter of 2007 to the first quarter of 2016.

People who are overqualified for a particular job are a separate and more-difficult-to-identify category altogether.

The rate of those two additional estimates is also higher than in 2007, due both to the increase of workers in those categories and the estimated drop in the total labor force.

See all of those categories of people either working or seeking work that make up the state’s total labor force in the view below. 

It’s important to note that the alternative measures are presented only every quarter, and as a rolling average of four quarters because the sample size of the survey is not large enough to produce reliable monthly numbers.

The conversation with a friend wouldn’t be too satisfying if it ended with, “How’s work?” “I’m still marginally attached.” But in some cases with this particular BLS data, that’s as good as it gets.

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.