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Commentary: Falling unemployement rates

There are people who lose their jobs during the best of times, and those who are wildly successful even during a depression.

But what really matters is the overall trend. When you look at that, and at a flurry of new numbers that came out yesterday, it seems clear that Michigan is in fact doing better than a year ago.

No, there is no huge boom, and there are sobering indications that we still need to reinvent our economy. But the news is better than last year. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell last month to eight point three percent. That isn’t great. But a year ago, it was over ten percent.

Now, the jobless rate by itself doesn’t mean a great deal. If someone becomes so discouraged they leave the state, or stop looking for work, they aren’t counted as unemployed. It is possible to have both the jobless rate and the number of jobs go down.

That wasn’t the case last month, however. The workforce increased by a few thousand, and eleven thousand more people were working. Overall, Michigan now has ninety thousand more jobs than it did a year ago, and that is certainly good news.

But modest good news, when you consider that in the previous decade, the state lost more than eight hundred thousand jobs.

The unemployment rate is lower than it has been in almost four years. But the labor force itself continues to change.

While the total number of jobs were up in April, the increase came almost entirely from white-collar jobs, such as professional, business and health services. But the number of people working in two areas fell. The state lost six thousand construction and manufacturing jobs, two of the old economy’s major traditional fields.

That continues a trend that started well before the Great Recession began four years ago, and underscores our state’s need for new high- technology jobs and a better educated work force.

Those conclusions were confirmed yesterday by the University of Michigan’s top economists, who presented their latest forecasts for the legislators in Lansing. They predicted that unemployment will continue to fall gradually over the next two and a half years, and that the state will keep adding about sixty thousand new jobs a year. But they see no rapid boom. To quote George Fulton, this is “progress -- but these remain stubbornly high jobless rates.” And he added soberly that “many residents will not be vested in the recovery.”  He did, however, indicate one piece of good news that also has major implications. High-wage industry jobs that pay an average of more than seventy-two thousand dollars a year are actually growing the fastest and leading the state’s recovery.

They grew at almost a seven percent rate over a two-year period; lower-paying jobs grew far more slowly. Most of these high-wage jobs demand, naturally, high levels of education and training.

Policy makers in Lansing ought to take note. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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