The unemployment rate for high school graduates and college graduates is converging.


If you ever get lost inside the data labyrinth built by the St. Louis Fed (here’s to hoping your web browsing takes you to hipper places), you’ll see that there are thousands of ways to evaluate U.S. jobs statistics. While most of those are trending in a positive direction relative to recent history, economists and the business press have identified stagnating wages and the lagging share of adults in the workforce as trouble spots blemishing the improving labor market. That’s how even robust economies operate—there’s always going to be at least a bit of cautionary news, even when the top lines all seem positive.

Except in this one instance that I found. The numbers seem to show that now is a great time for adults of any educational attainment to be active participants in the workforce (either employed or searching for employment). The unemployment rate in June was a lean 4 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Friday. But it’s not much higher for people 25 and older without a high school diploma: For them, it’s just 5.5 percent.

It’s intuitive that workers of a low education level would be hardest hit during economic downturns, as well as have the highest incidence of joblessness in general. The unemployment rate for this group spiked above 15 percent during the nadir of the Great Recession, for example, while it was never worse than 10 percent for the overall economy and about 5 percent for college-educated workers during the same time. Eight years later, job prospects are better for every educational cohort. But in the following graph from the St. Louis Fed, notice how unemployment for each group converges near the overall rate:

You can see how the share of jobless laborers with a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree, are roughly proxies for the economy in times both good and bad. But workers with a four-year education are the most insulated from poor trends, whereas those of opposite standing are the most exposed to negative market forces. Halfway into 2018, though, no educational group is missing out.

For the purposes of due diligence, let’s check this data against the labor force participation rate. If laborers without high school diplomas were fleeing the workforce in droves, then their cohort’s unemployment rate could be skewed. But as this graph reflects, labor force participation among these workers has oscillated around 45 percent in the last decade, while their unemployment rate has fallen by about two-thirds.

labforce-UR.jpg

This group, in fact, is the only one in the last 25 years that has produced rising participation in the workforce. This comes as their share of the labor market has dwindled, not merely because their raw numbers have dropped—there are now a little more than 10 million such workers who are employed, down from more than 12 million a decade ago—but because the number of college-educated laborers has continued to increase steadily and significantly:

laborforcecomp.jpg

None of the above gets into the “why” or is meant to imply that it’s meaningful to the economy. And it certainly isn’t meant to signal that four-year degrees are overrated for job security. (It is evident that they are a backstop for many amid market turmoil.) But it’s definitely fascinating, as well as encouraging, to learn that more people are getting paychecks regardless of what academic certificates are hanging from their walls.





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