This week, OK Policy put out the latest edition of Numbers You Need, our monthly bulletin of key economic and budget indicators for the state. Our main headline was of an economic recovery stuck in neutral. While there are certain encouraging signs of the state emerging from out of the Great Recession, the downturn is continuing to hit segments of the population hard. High levels of distress can be seen, for example, in record numbers of home foreclosures and continued growth in food stamp and Medicaid caseloads. But it is the persistence of high rates of unemployment and slow job growth that provide the strongest and most worrisome indicator of the distances still needed to be traveled to a solid, broad-based recovery.
Oklahoma’s unemployment rate hit 6.8 percent in June, rising one-tenth of one percent for the second straight month and falling just short of the highest rate registered during this recession (6.9 percent from August to October 2009). Oklahoma’s unemployment in June remained well below the national rate of 9.5 percent and was 8th lowest among the states. However, over the past six months, the national unemployment rate has dropped 0.5 percentage points, while Oklahoma’s rate has remained unchanged.
While Oklahoma’s unemployment rate has plateaued or even inched up, the state is beginning to see some modest job growth (unemployment and employment can both rise when you have more people entering or returning to the the labor market). Total non-farm employment in June was 1,534,200, which is an increase of 17,100, or 1.1 percent, over the past three months. During the same three-month period, employment grew by 0.5 percent for the nation as a whole. However, despite the recent upturn, employment remains far below pre-recession levels:
Total employment in June remained 40,900, or 2.6 percent, below that of December 2007, the month which marked the official onset of the recession. Manufacturing jobs in Oklahoma have been hit especially hard, declining by 25,700, or 17.2 percent, compared to December 2007, as have jobs in construction, which are 4,000, or 5.5 percent below pre-downturn levels. Starting six months ago the state began adding back construction jobs, due in part to stimulus funding for road and bridge repairs, while manufacturing jobs have showed more recent signs of rebounding, increasing by 900 in June.
While Oklahoma has lost some 41,000 jobs since the start of the national recession, this doesn’t take into account the job growth that is needed to serve a growing working-age population. According to data supplied by the Economic Policy Institute, which collects and shares monthly employment data, Oklahoma’s working age population has grown by 2.7 percent, or just under 43,000, since December 2007. This yields a “jobs shortfall” of 83,795 as of June – the difference between the actual number of jobs and the number of jobs if job growth had kept pace with working age population growth since the onset of the recession. Nationally, EPI calculates the job shortfalls since the onset of the recession at 10.8 million.
While we can be hopeful about continued job growth in the months ahead, employment growth will have to become much more robust to serve not only those who are officially unemployed but the substantial number of “missing workers” who have dropped out of the labor force or never entered during the recession, along with those who are involuntarily working only part-time. All signs suggest this will be a long, painful process, and recent trends indicate that while Oklahoma was late to enter the recession, it will not be as fortunate in making an early exit.