Job Market: Becoming Even More Competitive

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- When the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Friday that the unemployment rate had dropped to 8.3% after the economy added nearly 250,000 jobs in January, the message seemed clear: The U.S. is hiring again. Not only did this shatter hiring expectations, but it represented the fifth consecutive month that the unemployment rate had declined.

While that certainly sounds like good news for the millions of Americans looking for work, economists say it could also cause some of those who gave up on their job hunts in recent years to come back and resume their search, which would effectively make the labor market that much more competitive.
The January jobs report was good, but it's likely to mean competition for positions will get even more fierce.

"There's no question that more people will be entering the labor force," says Mark Price, a labor economist with the Keystone Research Center, noting that it's necessary for more workers to re-enter the job market for the economy to get healthier. "But it's absolutely correct to worry. From the perspective of someone looking for work, there is a good chance that there will be extra bodies out there looking too."

Price and other economists who spoke with us do not expect there to be an influx of workers overnight, but rather gradually throughout the course of the next six months or so if the positive jobs numbers continue. As Price points out, though, even that trickle of extra workers could pose a threat to current job hunters given that there are still more than four unemployed workers for every job opening.

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To complicate matters further, baseline improvements in the jobless rate from month to month may overstate the actual pace of improvement in the labor market. Yes, unemployment is now at a three-year low, but some of that is due to the many Americans who either stopped looking for work altogether or accepted part-time employment out of desperation, since neither group is counted among the unemployed. The underemployment rate, which does factor in part-time workers, is stuck above 15% and the overall percentage of the population that is employed, which factors in those who gave up, remains more than four percentage points below where it stood just before the recession.

For many job hunters, though, the traditional unemployment rate is all that matters and it's that statistic that will convince people to look for jobs again even if the labor market is weaker than the unemployment rate implies.

"That's the number which will be on the nightly news and in all the morning newspapers," says Gary Burtless, a labor economist at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization. The net effect, he says, is that there may come a time when people start re-entering the labor force faster than the pace at which jobs are created. "There are going to be months where there is reasonably healthy job growth, but no decline in the number of unemployed. In some months, there may even be an increase."

Just because more people return to look for jobs in the coming months doesn't necessarily mean that those who have been applying all along will be worse off. For starters, as more of the unemployed start finding work, Price predicts that some who have forced themselves to take certain jobs to support their families will either switch positions, cut down their hours or stop working altogether.

"Think of the construction industry, for instance," he says. "Typically it's a male workforce and it's not unusual for the spouse not to work, but they may have taken on more hours if their husband got laid off, so you might see some spouses pull back out of the workforce." If so, that would create additional job openings and potentially cut down on some of the extra competition.

Moreover, as is true anytime one applies for a job opening, success depends largely on who the competition is and how their experience compares. According to Burtless, many of those who stopped looking for jobs were younger workers who either went back to school or bided their time with travel and other activities. These are the workers most likely to come back in droves in the next six months, and if their resume has long gaps or shows less work experience than yours, you will likely be in a better position to get hired.

"Suppose they haven't been doing anything and the last job on their resume ended two and a half years ago," Burtless says. "Their resume will look like they haven't done anything. I'm not sure that changing their status as far as the BLS is concerned from being out of the labor force to looking again will really make a difference."

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