How Employers Talk About Unemployment

David Altstadt has a new report out for Jobs for the Future analyzing online job posting aggregation tools and how community colleges might use them to fine-tune their programs to reflect local job opportunities. According to the report, Georgetown economists have estimated that two-thirds of all jobs will require at least some postsecondary education, as compared to about one-third today, and so our various educational institutions, especially community colleges, will have to drastically expand their output if there are going to be anything like enough qualified applicants available.

However, community college graduates are still often having trouble finding work, raising questions about whether community colleges are properly preparing their graduates for the labor market, and they are facing stiff competition from for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix (as well as nonprofits like Western Governors University, which you can read about in our latest issue).

Thus, web developers have created online tools to try to get a sense of what kinds of jobs are available, which could then be used by community colleges to adjust their programs. Similar to travel service aggregators services like Kayak, these services look at dozens of job posting sites across the country and aggregate the results in a single place. These services, while impressive, are of limited utility in a situation of mass unemployment.

Several organizations, featured in the report, have begun using these analyses to dig into their local labor markets and produce all kinds of fascinating data. Just for an example, I found this chart, of openings compared to claimants in Maine, interesting for reasons I’ll explain shortly:


There are a few problems with online job aggregation. Most obviously, not all jobs are posted online. The search and sorting techniques, though impressively sophisticated and improving, cannot yet capture every posting nor remove every duplicate. As yet, online aggregation remains one tool whose shortcomings must be kept in mind, but one that might help community colleges and students be better prepared for entering the job market.

This report was very interesting and worth a read, but from a larger perspective I’m a bit skeptical of the whole hiring edifice. Obviously, the person who is actually deciding which applicant to hire has a great deal of influence over what kind of qualifications are necessary to start a job, but I see no reason to blindly accept their standards as received wisdom. There is evidence, for example, that the traditional unstructured interview (where the applicant is asked whatever questions seem relevant to the interviewer) is basically useless for finding quality employees. A structured interview, with a rigid questionnaire, is better. What are we to make of employers who insist they need an associate degree or higher for most positions? Is there any evidence suggesting that associates degrees are actually mandatory in a technical sense for those positions? (I couldn’t find any in a cursory search; I would gladly appreciate links.) Indeed, in the report Altstadt mentions that employers sometimes explicitly want overqualified applicants, and in this economic environment, they can afford to be choosy. With a tighter labor market, we would likely see standards loosen substantially, and the whole educational profile created by one of these services could then be rendered obsolete.

Moreover, this whole issue seems caught up in the broader macroeconomic downturn. The handwringing about preparedness and educational effectiveness, while a worthy topic, seems ancillary to the issue of massive unemployment and excess capacity. Look again at that chart—every single occupation save five has more claimants than jobs, some hugely so. The only real labor shortage there is in “healthcare practitioners & tech” and there’s no way it could absorb all the excess from the giant blue bars on the left. (Again, that graph is from Maine, but US statistics are quite similar—a few sectors showing many openings, but the vast majority swamped with claimants.) Indeed, I suspect whatever data that one might need to reconfigure community colleges is lost in the swarms of unemployed. The whole idea of colleges providing the wrong preparation for students seems to assume the whole “structural unemployment” narrative, when there is overwhelming evidence of a broad-based downturn. Basically, rejiggering our community colleges isn’t going to help many people if there just flatly aren’t enough jobs.

If someone manages to sneak an economic recovery package past Congress or recovery happens by some spontaneous process (assuming the Fed doesn’t stomp on it), and we get unemployment down past 6 percent or so, then I reckon these kinds of tools will be a lot more useful.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.