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Monday, May 7, 2012

Keep your eye on U6

U6 isn't a submarine or a new spy aircraft; it's a measure of unemployment in the U.S. Although it's a relatively obscure statistic, it may be the most important.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates six measures of unemployment, designated U1 through U6. U1 is the most narrow definition: the percentage of the labor force unemployed 15 weeks or longer. (How the "labor force" is calculated is a different story. For example, people in prisons don't count.) U6, on the other hand, is the broadest measure. It includes discouraged workers -- those who have quit looking -- as well as part-time workers who would prefer a full-time job but can't find one.

When the government speaks about "unemployment rate" without elaboration, it means U3. Prior to 1994, it meant U5. Yes, that's a bit of book-cooking by the Clinton administration.

The seasonally adjusted U6 for April 2012 was 14.5%... much higher than the U3 numbers we usually hear. It's down from 15.9% in April 2011, but don't confuse pleasure with the absence of pain. 14.5% is sufficient to create political fear and anger, and therefore jobs are likely to be the most important issue in November elections.

Remember, if the national average is 14.5%, there are locales where the rate is higher. As you can see in North Carolina, there are counties where even the U3 rate is over 15%. Imagine what their U6 rates are!

It's so bad that new grads are taking unpaid internships just to get their feet in the door. Many of these "internships" are merely go-fer roles. Even new grads in engineering have trouble finding jobs.

One of my neighbors, who holds a PhD in endocrinology with 25 years experience in developing new pharmaceuticals, lost his job last week. I know what it feels like.