Guest Column

Mark Williamson


Sixty New Jobs


The government purports to track the unemployment rate. But scrutiny of the numbers reveals arbitrary definitions and assumptions that obscure as much as they reveal.


You may have recently heard the good news:  the unemployment rate in this country fell from 6.0 percent to 5.9 percent in November. The news media heralded this revelation as a sign of a economic recovery. But is it?


Many people don’t seem to know how the Department of Labor comes up with its statistics. The friends and family I spoke with thought that it was based on unemployment insurance claims. Not so. In fact, unemployment claims contribute nothing to the unemployment statistics. To collect the data, the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) conducts a monthly survey of about 60,000 households nationwide, called the Current Population Survey.


According to the BLS, employed persons include those who “did any work at all (at least 1 hour) as paid employees”. Now hang on. If I had performed one hour of paid work last week I would be counted as "employed"? Working one hour a week is my dream, but I can’t possibly survive on what I'd earn.


The definition of an unemployed person makes a little more sense. You must have worked less than one hour the preceding week and be actively looking for a job. Note that if you have given up looking for a job then you are not counted as unemployed. You are called a “Discouraged Worker”.


Now we are ready to do some math. The BLS attempts to contact around 60,000 households (some percentage of these cannot be contacted). Six percent of that that group would equal 3,600 people; 5.9% would equal 3,540 people, a difference of 60 people. In the survey group, the net gain in jobs is 60. From this number, the BLS extrapolates that 105,000 people nationally found new jobs.


Those 60,000 people represent about one out of every 2,500 people in the working population. These are odds only a statistician can love. One must be a true believer to think that by talking to one person in a group of 2,500 you can determine the plight of the other 2,499.


When the BLS calls you on the phone, it doesn’t ask if you are a U.S. citizen, a foreign worker or an illegal alien. The statistics include everyone who is working in this country. For example, a foreign software programmer hired on a temporary work visa is counted as employed.There are an estimated 1.7 million temporary foreign workers in this country. I have to say “estimated” because the Department of Labor doesn’t keep track of those figures. Illegal immigrants are counted, too. There are an estimated 10 million illegal immigrants in this country.


Now we’ve just introduced millions of non-citizens into our definition of the 146 million-person workforce. Many of these people came here solely for jobs. The software programmers came here on temporary work visas. When and if their jobs go away, so will they.  They are counted as employed today, but will never be counted as unemployed. When this category of people numbers in the millions, it can really skew the numbers.


And what about the “Discouraged Workers”?  According to the BLS survey there are 457,000 discouraged workers in the U.S. Because they gave up, they are no longer counted as unemployed.


Here’s another twist. The unemployment rate for workers with a Bachelor’s degree and higher, 25 years old and over, went from 3.0 percent to 3.1 percent.  It increased. We actually lost high-paying jobs in November.


I was laid off from Cisco Systems in April of 2001.  Since that time I have struggled to find a job – any job, anywhere. I have seen massive outsourcing of computer programming jobs to other countries. I have seen the import of foreign programmers as a means to boost corporate profits and avoid retraining skilled professionals.


Through research in the Department of Labor database I have found that the business unit in which I was employed has hired 12 foreign software engineers - one of which is probably sitting in my old cubicle. I have seen the wholesale destruction of our manufacturing sector as it steadily moves overseas. I have seen part of a marathon U.S. Senate debate, lasting a whopping 40 hours. Somewhere around hour 29, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada outlined what had been lost since the debate began: the government ran up another $300 million more in debt, there were 36 more mass layoffs (a mass layoff involves 50 or more people, 3,194 more people ran out of unemployment benefits; and 5,137 more people declared personal bankruptcy (now at the highest level in history). And what was the Senate debating?  They were debating the fate of four federal judge nominees who already have high paying jobs with great benefits.


In the BLS survey there were 60 new jobs in October. I was not one of those 60 people. According to the BLS survey 457,000 people have given up looking for work. I am not yet one of those people. But I’m damned close.


-- December 15, 2003































Mark Williamson, an unemployed software engineer, lives in the Richmond region.


His e-mail address is:

[email protected]