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11/2/2003

‘Actively seeking’

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Colorado’s unemployment rate has held steady around 5.6 percent for nearly two years, according to Jim Chivers, head of the unemployment count at the Department of Labor and Employment.

That magical number, he said, is useful in reflecting statewide economic stagnation. But other factors — especially during a long recession — can make the unemployment figure fuzzy.

The state theoretically surveys all employers contributing to unemployment insurance, approximately 4,400 quarterly, to determine positions filled or lost, Chivers said.

Another state-issued survey, the so-called “household survey,” polls 1,300 households statewide monthly to discover who has lost their job.

“To be considered unemployed, all they have to be is over age 16 and actively seeking employment,” he explained.

The statistical catch is the “actively seeking” part of the question, according to Tucker Hart Adams, Rocky Mountain region chief economist at U.S. Bank, Denver.

“What it comes down to is that if you have not actively looked for a job in the last four weeks, or if you’ve been laid off, but are receiving severance pay, you’re not counted as unemployed,” she explained.

Judging by the state’s official measures, the Boulder/Longmont area has fared better this year as compared with last, according to Tom Miller, director of Workforce Boulder County.

In September 2002, state reports showed the county hitting 5.7 percent. Last month, the figure had dropped to 5 percent, he said.

“I think there are two reasons,” Miller explained. “It’s because the bigger cuts happened last year with high-tech and upper management layoffs, and because professionals tend to be more mobile. They can move where the jobs are, and many of them have.”

Overall, however, times are still tough enough to discourage qualified workers and cause them to drop out as job seekers, Adams said. That collective response artificially shrinks the official unemployment headcount.

One group no longer counted as unemployed includes those perpetually marginalized in the workforce by illiteracy, language barriers, poor job skills, little education and even family environments in which no one held down permanent full time work, she said.

During the mid-1990s, Adams explained, the robust economy prompted employers to tap into this segment and train them for work.

“Almost anyone could get a job if they wanted it,” she said. “And many of these people were able, for the first time in their lives, to take jobs.”

They were hired last and let go first, she explained. And for them, workforce re-entry may be a long shot for a long while.

“Not surprisingly,” she continued, “they are the first ones to get discouraged and give up (job hunting).”

Another group outside of the state’s unemployment definition — but nevertheless out-of-work or underemployed — includes members of the high-tech and management level workforce, according to Adams.

Many of them, she continued, have relied on savings and either headed back to school for another degree or started consulting with varying degrees of success.

“(That person) could be an engineer who’s gone through all his unemployment insurance and is working at the local bookstore to make ends, or has a consultant job here and there, but it’s not enough,” Miller explained.

Workers forced into early retirement constitute another invisible unemployed population along with parents once in two-income households who gave up rather than take a job they considered unsuitable to their skill and pay demands, Adams said.

“On the human side,” she added, “that’s very different from the person who can’t feed his or her family or the person who slips into a serious depression because he or she can’t provide college or health-care for the family.”

Still, though poorly documented, all of the above scenarios make Miller consider the state numbers “conservative,” he said.

“The reason the unemployment rate has stayed so stable,” Adams added, “in spite of all the layoffs, is because for every person who loses and job and becomes officially unemployed, someone else stops looking for work and stops being counted as unemployed.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.