The U.S. unemployment rate remained unchanged at 5 percent in April, according to figures released by the Labor Department on Friday. But does that tell the whole story?
On jobs Friday, the government puts out a ton of economic and employment-related data, each of which provides a certain perspective on the country’s economic situation. Economists look past the official employment rate (also know as the “U-3” number) to metrics that provide more nuanced views of employment.
The U-3 rate is meant to show the “total unemployed, as a percent of the civilian labor force,” but doesn’t include a number of employment situations. A broader figure is the U-6 rate, which is used by many economists as a more accurate portrayal of the employment situation.
The U-6 rate fell to 9.7 percent in April.
The U-6 rate is defined as all unemployed as well as “persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the labor force.” That means the unemployed, the underemployed and the discouraged.
While the U-6 rate has made substantial gains in the past years, it remains stubbornly at pre-recession levels. It’s also been more volatile than the U-3 rate. The U-6 is down 110 basis points over the past year, versus a 40-point drop in the U-3.
As unemployment rates have returned to more typical pre-recession levels, economists have focused on other job indicators such as labor participation and wages.
A rise in the unemployment rate is not always a bad thing. The one-tenth point rise in the U-3 rate in March, for example, was a function of more potential workers getting out and looking for jobs. That could mean that previously marginalized workers are seeing progress in the job market and are coming in off the sidelines.
But despite the improvement that government statistics show, some economists think that the employment situation is much more dire, partly because of the sluggish participation rate. That fell two-tenths of a percent to 62.8 percent in April.
The participation rate has fallen since the recession, but economists don’t agree on why. Some suggest that demographic shifts — mainly the retiring baby boomers — is the main cause. Others think it’s more cyclical factors or changes in the economy.
Market observers continue to pay close attention to the monthly jobs reports to see what effects they will have on the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates this year. The next policy meeting in is June and Fed Chair Janet Yellen has repeatedly said the committee was looking to the data to see evidence for improvement in the economy.
Investors were disheartened on Wednesday by a report from ADP that showed the private sector added just 156,000 jobs in April, well below estimates.