×

You can't get the full employment picture without these metrics

Just days before Americans decide the fate of the White House's next resident, the Labor Department released its latest read on employment, and by most accounts it paints a relatively healthy picture of the labor market. But digging a little deeper could uncover some cracks in the foundation.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 161,000 in October, showing continued growth, but falling short of forecasts of 173,000. That averages out to 181,000 new jobs created per month so far in 2016, but slower than the 229,000 jobs created monthly in 2015.

August and September were both revised higher to 167,000 and 191,000, respectively from their initial reports, adding another 44,000 jobs.

This adds up to a U-3 jobless rate that's inched down to 4.9 percent. But when you factor in the participation rate, that figure needs some additional explaining.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

In October, the labor force participation dipped down to 62.8 percent, a hair lower than the 62.9 percent in September. That translates to another 195,000 people that have completely dropped out of the labor force.

For context, these are levels last seen in the 1970s. To put it another way, only about two-thirds of what the Bureau of Labor Statistics defines as the non-institutional civilian population over the age of 16 is employed or actively seeking employment. It does not include people who have given up looking for work and dropped out of the workforce. The denominator in this equation is getting smaller.

For context, the labor force participation rate hit a 38-year low in September of last year and hasn't ticked higher than 63 percent since.

"It is not surprising that the unemployment rate is so low when so many people have just dropped out of the labor force," said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, senior fellow at Manhattan Institute.

To be sure, an August report by the president's council of economic advisers notes that about half of the drop in participation is structural, with the rate of baby boomers retiring rapidly expanding.

But Furchtgott-Roth doesn't believe that tells the whole story.

"The facts are the labor force participation rate is higher than ever among 55 and over, and it's low between the 25 to 55 age group," she said.

To get the entire picture, economists point to the U-6, or the "real unemployment rate". The broadest measure of the employment picture includes discouraged workers who would like to work, but have dropped out of the workforce and those who are considered underemployed. The U-6 rate dropped to 9.5 percent, which is the lowest level since the beginning of 2008.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Aaron Klein, economic studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, is hesitant to call this full employment.

"I pay attention to the structural amount of labor force and people going in and out of the labor market — we're definitely seeing a shrinking, particularly of working-age men," he said.

But he does see some potential bright spots.

Said Klein: "The growth in construction is a positive sign. Whoever wins this election hopefully will get a big infrastructure package and put more people to work, because we have a lot of people out of the labor market, who should be back in."