MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now it's time once again for Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories we'll be hearing more about by parsing some of the words associated with those stories. And two words we think we might hear this week are full employment. And the reason is that later this week, the Labor Department will release the latest jobs data. That's expected to show that employers added even more workers in January. So this week, full employment is a phrase that economists use to explain how the job market recovers from a recession. But NPR's senior business editor, Marilyn Geewax, is here to tell us why full employment doesn't tell the full story for millions of Americans who are still out of work or people looking for something better than part-time work. Marilyn, thanks so much for joining us.
MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi, Michel. It's good to be with you.
MARTIN: So what is full employment?
GEEWAX: Well, that phrase basically means that the number of people seeking jobs is in balance with the number of job openings. So it doesn't mean that unemployment is zero - that's never realistic - but you can get pretty low.
MARTIN: So if economists don't mean zero unemployment when they use the phrase full employment, what do they mean?
GEEWAX: (Laughter) So - well, in their math, it's about 4.6 to 5 percent because that's where you have churn in the market. Some people are quitting, some people are getting hired. But there's churn, but not despair. And in December, we saw the national rate was 5 percent, and a lot of predictions are that it'll be 4.6 percent by the middle of the year. So bingo, we're there.
MARTIN: But does that mean that most people who want a job can get one? In fact, we've already seen stories, for example, in the media about how certain workers are still having a really difficult time finding a job. Like minority teenagers, for example - the unemployment rate is quite high. Women over a certain age, the unemployment rate is still quite high. Is it really fair to use the term full employment when that doesn't really seem to match the reality that a lot of people are experiencing?
GEEWAX: Those words can hit hard, and they can hurt because it sounds like well, you're - you must be doing something wrong. But really, unemployment is very regional. In West Virginia, I looked at some statistics, there are counties where the unemployment rate is 13 percent. That's Depression level. You know, and meanwhile in California's Silicon Valley, there's virtually no unemployment. And as you say, you point out that the difference is based on age - black teenagers, unemployment rate is 21 percent. For women of any color, if you're over 50, studies show you have a tough time getting back into the workforce. You become long-term unemployed. It can take months, years. And besides age and location, more than anything, education determines your unemployment rate. For college graduates, it's 2.3 percent unemployment. For high school dropouts, 7 percent. So that's a huge difference.
MARTIN: So before we let you go, is what economists now call full employment something that a lot of Americans are going to still experience as something very unsatisfying?
GEEWAX: Right, exactly. The jobs (laughter) you know, if you're a 30-year-old with a college degree and a U-Haul, you are all set. You can find jobs. If you want to go to night school and you want to move, you can be part of that full employment economy. But the reality for a lot of people is that's very hard, especially women in their 50s. They tend to be at the center of kind of an ecosystem financially, emotionally, where they have aging parents depending on them, children depending on them, grandchildren. So it's tough to move, and that's why it hurts to hear those words like full employment.
MARTIN: That's NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Marilyn, thanks so much.
GEEWAX: Oh, you're welcome, Michel.
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