March 2016 Employment: On the Plus Side of Stagnation

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The three core pieces of data that make up monthly reports based on Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) information were all positive in Rhode Island in March, although the official unemployment rate remained unchanged at 5.4%.  From the previous month, the state’s labor force (those working or looking for work) was up 683; employment of Rhode Islanders was up 561; and jobs based in the state were up 2,700.

In the context of longer-term trends, though, the employment numbers don’t give much impression of change.  Rather than being on the negative side of “flat,” they’re on the positive side.  It will take another month of similar improvements to give a sense of a trend.

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Putting Rhode Island’s lines alongside those for Massachusetts and Connecticut reinforces the impression of an economy that is holding people back, rather than improving.  With the much-more-significant jumps for its neighbors, Rhode Island’s slight improvement looks like a reluctant bend to larger trends.

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The relative story is similar if we step back for a nationwide view.  Although still only third worst in the country, when it comes to regaining its employment level compared with a pre-recession peak, Rhode Island is once again moving into outlier territory.  Making that trend especially painful is that Rhode Islanders must watch their former fellow outlier, Michigan, advance past the next group of lagging states, after having implemented right-to-work legislation a few years ago.

Amplifying the sour note in this trend, it was necessary this month to adjust the axis of the following chart because the highest outlier on the other end of the spectrum, Texas, surpassed 114% of its pre-recession peak in March.

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The final chart captures the most positive of Rhode Island’s results, jobs based in the state, shown as the light area.  As significant as 2,700 jobs in a month is, however, it’s still just an upward oscillation along a slow-growth trend.  Time will tell whether this will be followed with a downward oscillation next month or is the start of a new trend, but for this month, anyway, it would be premature to herald the claim that the state has leaped from its long-running rut.

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