February 2014 Employment: Likelihood of Revision


Viewed in the isolation of month-to-month difference, Rhode Island’s February employment report looks very positive.  Labor force was up 2,660, employment was up 3,475, and jobs were up 1,500.  All in one month, there were more jobs based in Rhode Island, even more people started their own businesses or got jobs out of state, and even more people decided to get back to work.

Put me in the skeptical column.

For one thing, we’ve seen this every year — particularly, it seems, election years — with major downward revisions to follow. Almost every state in the country had a large upswing in employment, last month, whether they had been on an upward or downward trend in the prior months.  Out of nowhere, Rhode Island had the second largest employment growth (by percentage) of any state, other than Virginia.

But does it feel like we’re suddenly booming?

For another thing, from January to February, Rhode Island’s average weekly hours worked dropped from 39.6 to 39.4.  That may not seem like a lot, but given the number of jobs in the state, it’s around 95,000 hours per week.  Purely for conceptual purposes, that means that 9,500 people could have had their hours cut 10 hours in order to count as part time.  That could easily drive 2,660 spouses or children to look for part-time work.

The bottom line is that we’re still dead last among all states by multiple measures.

The monthly chart of Rhode Island’s employment level and labor force illustrates how inexplicably sharp has been this one-month recovery.

The comparison with our neighboring states shows that, whatever explains the uptick, it wasn’t unique to Rhode Island.  Either there’s some glitch in the numbers nationwide, or the same factor (e.g., cuts to part-time) is happening everywhere.

Because whatever happened happened so consistently across the country, Rhode Island’s relative standing didn’t improve.  The Ocean State is still dead last with regard to its distance from an employment peak.

We’re also still dead last when it comes to the number of jobs gained (or lost) since the national employment picture bottomed out and began improving in February 2010.

Our last chart reinforces how peculiar February’s numbers were.  The lighter area, showing Rhode Island-based jobs, continued its slow (probably organic) growth, consistent with the trend over many years.  The darker area, however, shows a very sudden burst in employment.

These results could mean that many Rhode Islanders found work outside of the state.  That seems unlikely, though, because the job growth was even slower in our neighboring states, and their average weekly hours dropped even more.

The results could also follow my part-time-cut scenario above.  If people’s hours were cut dramatically, driving family members into the workforce as independent contractors (doing odd jobs for example).  Even if they only managed to find a little bit of work — shoveling a neighbor’s driveway, fixing a little bit of siding, babysitting for a few hours, or something — they might tell a government surveyor that, yes, they did work, even though they might have wanted to add “barely.”

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