Tailwind Economy Represents a First Down in a Long Drive

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Labor released its jobs report for the month of February. The February jobs report finds that the unemployment rate has fallen to 5.5 percent, its lowest level since May 2008. In addition, 295,000 jobs were added last month. In response to these findings, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez stated, “No one’s spiking the football here, but there’s an undeniable tailwind in the economy.”

Perez’s comment really sums up the current employment landscape and its implications for the nation and Goodwill®. Why? Because the economy is clearly (albeit slowly) recovering from the damage done by the worst recession since the Great Depression; however the low unemployment rate is misleading. In fact, Jim Clifton, Gallup’s chairman and CEO, recently blogged about this, calling the low unemployment rate “a big lie,” and noting that the calculation does not account for as many as 30 million Americans who have been long-term unemployed, have given up looking for work, or are under-employed. “Trust me,” Clifton notes, “the vast majority of them aren’t throwing parties to toast ‘falling’ unemployment.”

As Perez’s comment reflects, if we were to spike the ball now, we’d be doing it on our own 10-yard line. Yet, recent trends could be considered a big first down that is worth a cheer. This is due to the fact that the labor participation rate appears to have finally stabilized. Furthermore, we may have finally reached the point when we are not only adding jobs, but replacing jobs lost during the Great Recession. If this analysis is correct, it means the economy is starting to generate enough jobs to create employment opportunities for people who have “fallen out” of the workforce.

While the wind does appear to be at our backs, we cannot forget that there’s a long way to go before crossing the goal line. Goodwill continues to focus its attention on helping each of those 30 million long-term unemployed or under-employed Americans to find a job.

Even then we cannot declare victory. Edgar Helms once said, “be dissatisfied.” More than anyone, Goodwill understands that simply having a job isn’t enough to ensure that families are strong and communities are thriving. Now, more than ever, people need ongoing opportunities to learn skills that employers seek to fill jobs today and tomorrow. People also need careers that provide opportunities to advance, and pay wages that sustain their families.

With public resources stretched thin to cover an ever-increasing list of national priorities, ensuring opportunities for skills attainment, career advancement, and family-sustaining wages represents a significant and complex challenge that will require a whole-team approach and innovative strategies and tactics. Community-based organizations (like Goodwill), philanthropic foundations, businesses and employers, policymakers (at the local, state, and federal levels), and more are key players that have the ability to take on this challenge, but only if we form a team and focus on the goal.