Record Job Openings? These Americans Still Can’t Find a Decent Job

Job seekers line up for interviews

Job seekers line up for interviews. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

These are interesting times — economically speaking. We are experiencing low levels of unemployment coupled with high numbers of job openings. Typically, this is a recipe for wage growth. But, as we know, lots of people are still struggling. Geographic and demographic differences in economic gains are creating strife among the masses. Things might look calm on the surface, but below there’s a good amount of tension.

Still, we’re on sound economic footing. When you compare where we were eight years ago, it’s hard not to be thankful for where we are. No, not everyone is prospering. But we’re not experiencing mass foreclosures, the stock market isn’t tanking, and, for the most part, people have managed to go back to work — except for the holdouts.

There are still a good number of people who can’t seem to find a decent job. Again, despite the fact that unemployment is low and vacancies are high — it’s a job seeker’s market, you could say — there are certain groups of people who can’t find footing in the labor pool.

Who are these people? Why can’t they find jobs?

Those who are still looking for jobs tend to fall into one of seven distinct categories, according to researchers Martha Ross and Natalie Holmes of the Brookings Institution. Together, Ross and Holmes set out to create a model with which we could better visualize who is out of work, even in an era of recording job openings and low unemployment. When looking at the economy as a whole, of course, this can be incredibly difficult.

The unemployed who still can’t find jobs

job hunting books

Job hunting literature sits on a desk. | John Moore/Getty Images

There are innumerable factors at play, and one person’s advantage is another person’s weakness when searching for jobs. The researchers took some of these factors into consideration and published their analysis, so we could streamline the process of getting people back to work.

“Even in the midst of a prolonged economic expansion with a low national unemployment rate, jobs are not always available and not everyone who wants work can find it. Both job availability and demographics vary markedly around the country, yielding diverse local populations wanting and/or needing work,” the analysis reads.

It continues: “We provide a unique perspective on adults ages 25-64 who are out of work in each of 130 large cities and counties across the United States, using cluster analysis to segment the out-of-work population into distinct groups based on factors such as educational attainment, age, work history, disability, English language proficiency, and family status.”

We’ll dig into the seven main categories of the unemployed the analysis identified. As a starting point, here is the number of people whom the researchers considered “out of work,” meaning they were of working age, weren’t enrolled in school or retired, and weren’t child-rearing.

All told, it’s a pool of 11.3 million people between the ages of 25 and 64 in those 130 jurisdictions. This is who they are.

1. The young, diverse, and less-educated

A young man looking for jobs in California

A young man looks for jobs in California. | Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

One thing will quickly become clear from this analysis: Education matters. According to the analysis, these people are almost all under the age of 35. Almost half of them have children, and more than a quarter speak limited English.

“Members have at most a high school diploma (or equivalent), and 41 percent have not completed high school. Median family income is $30,753, the lowest of any group, and 58 percent receive safety net support. More than one-third are actively looking for work,” the report stated.

2. The less-educated and middle-aged

Job applicants register for a job fair

Job applicants register for a job fair. | John Moore/Getty Images

A lack of education is a common denominator in many of the seven identified strata. And it wasn’t just with the under-35 crowd either. The report also identifies workers of “prime age” with less education to be more likely out of work than others. It’s also a very diverse subset of the population.

According to the analysis, “44 percent did not complete high school. They are nearly all ‘prime age,’ between 25 and 54 years old. The plurality is Latino, and nearly half were born outside the United States — although two-thirds of all members are U.S. citizens. A large percentage are English language-learners and over half speak a language other than English at home.”

3. Less-educated older people

A Career Coach reviews a job seeker's resume and interview skills

A career coach reviews a job seeker’s resume and interview skills. | Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Yes, a lack of educational attainment can hurt you well into your older years. The analysis also singled out older, less-educated people as having trouble finding jobs. Around one-fifth of them reported having a disability, and relatively few (18%) are actively looking for work. Interestingly enough, many of them are getting ready to retire.

“Nearly all are over 55 and may be eyeing retirement but are not receiving retirement or disability benefits,” the report stated.

4. Moderately educated young people


A man carries his resume. | John Moore/Getty Images

“Motivated and moderately educated” sounds like a fairly potent combination on the job hunt. But the data show this is one category of people who are often stuck on the outside looking in. The majority of people in this group are between 25 and 34, and 75% of them have completed at least some college. They also have the highest rates of school enrollment, and nearly half are actively looking for work.

You may think of these folks as being stuck in the middle in a sense. They’re looking for jobs, have at least some level of education, but are still struggling.

5. Moderately educated older people

now hiring sign

A man walks by a “now hiring” sign in the window of a fast food restaurant. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Only a “moderate” level of education continues to haunt workers into middle age. Just like younger folks without a high level of educational attainment, middle-aged workers face similar obstacles when looking for jobs. But these folks are less likely to be actively looking for jobs than their younger counterparts. And also of interest is these people are those who have been discussed as being “left behind” in the new economy. That is, they’re mostly white, native-born, and speak English.

6. Highly educated younger people

A UC Berkeley student works on her laptop while sitting on the UC Berkeley campus

A University of California Berkeley student works on her laptop while sitting on campus. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Here’s perhaps the most surprising category: young people with high levels of educational attainment.

“Among all groups, members of this group were the most likely to have worked in the previous year, and they have the second-highest rate of actively looking for work. They are the least likely of any group to report some form of disability. All members have at least a bachelor’s degree and relatively high median family income,” the report stated.

So, it appears there’s a sweet spot of sorts for education. Too much and you’re hurting your prospects (in some cases). Too little and you’re also in trouble. And this issue isn’t unique to young people.

7. Highly educated older people

Unemployed job seekers wait to speak to potential employers at a job fair

Unemployed job seekers wait to speak to potential employers at a job fair. | John Moore/Getty Images

The final category includes those who are older and have high levels of education. These people are relatively wealthy (median family incomes of more than $83,000), and all have at least a bachelor’s degree. Roughly 88% of them are U.S. citizens, too. One reason these folks are finding it hard to get a job? They’re expensive to employers, often wanting higher salaries and better titles. And they already have a bit of financial security, meaning they’re not rushing back to the labor pool.

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