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The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

The Cyclical, Structural Unemployment Problem

Economists often describe unemployment as cyclical or structural. Cyclical unemployment results from broad economic slowdowns: As the economy turns,

Rian Mcconnell
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Sep 01, 2010

Economists often describe unemployment as “cyclical” or “structural.” Cyclical unemployment results from broad economic slowdowns: As the economy turns, businesses lay off workers, meaning other businesses suffer, meaning more layoffs. Structural unemployment results from broad economic changes: An economy with a strong apple trade might be becoming an economy with a strong orange trade, and as that transformation happens, a lot of apple workers might be out of a job.

Economic commentators such as Mohamed El-Erian, the head of PIMCO, have described the United States’ problem as mostly structural. The housing boom created millions of jobs in construction, development and realty, and those jobs are gone. Over at Project Syndicate, economist Brad DeLong makes the argument for cyclical unemployment:

In [the case of structural unemployment] we would expect to see construction depressed: firms closed, capital goods idle, and workers unemployed. But we would also expect to see manufacturing plants running at double shifts – the money not spent on construction has to go somewhere, and, remember, the problem is not a lack of aggregate demand. We would expect to see manufacturers holding job fairs, and when not enough workers showed up, we would expect to see manufacturers offering higher wages to attract workers into their plants, and then raising prices to cover their higher costs. [...]

That is what “mismatch” structural unemployment looks like – and it is not what we have today, at least not in Europe and North America. In the past three years, employment in construction has shrunk, but so has employment in manufacturing, wholesale trade, retail trade, transportation and warehousing, information distribution and communications, professional and business services, educational services, leisure and hospitality, and in the public sector. Employment is up in health care, Internet-related businesses, and perhaps in logging and mining.

DeLong does not say that structural unemployment does not exist in the U.S. economy, just that the problem is primarily cyclical. In a few years, with unemployment still projected to be above 8 percent, the problem will primarily be a structural one, he notes.

Though the problem seems to me to be both: The unemployment is cyclical and structural. Most sectors have suffered from the turndown, but job losses are concentrated in some industries: In residential construction, they are down 38 percent since 2006. (Between Aug. 2007 and Dec. 2009, unemployment in construction quintupled from about 5 percent to about 25 percent.) In health care and education, however, jobs are up.

Here is a chart I made from Bureau of Labor Statistics data that shows the phenomenon. (The chart shows total jobs in major sectors since 2005.) Most sectors — retail trade, business services, wholesale trade, finance — have had moderate job losses one could reasonably chalk up to an economy-wide lack of demand. Let’s think of those as sectors characterized mostly by cyclical job loss. Then, there is manufacturing and construction. Jobs there have taken a nose dive, and the problem seems to be structural. Moreover, the job gains in education and health might thought to be structural as well. (Mining and logging isn’t an industry I know a lot about, so I’m not sure what’s going on there.)

That said, the big problem at the root of all of the employment woes remains sluggish demand.

One can also think about the unemployment geographically. Joblessness has tracked up in all states, due to lack of demand. But states with big manufacturing and construction industries — Michigan, Nevada, California and Florida — are suffering from massive structural unemployment, made worse by the foreclosure crisis. (Four years ago, you might have been working in construction in Nevada and overpaid for your house. Today, you’re likely out of a job and, worse, can’t move to a state like North Dakota because you can’t sell the property.)

Rian Mcconnell | Rian is a Villanova University graduate who was born in DuBois, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia with a medical degree. His residency was at Thomas Jefferson and its associated Wills Eye Hospital, and he finished his education with fellowships in cataract and corneal surgery at the University of Connecticut. He has a vast experience in ophthalmic surgery, with a focus on cataract surgery, corneal transplantation, and laser refractive procedures. He serves on the board of Vision Health International, an agency that provides eye care and surgery to indigent patients in Central and South America, in addition to his surgical practice.


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