The 2020 US Talent Pool: From financial crisis to global pandemic.

A tough talent market for employers hits unpredictable turbulence.


[Note on the charts in this article, you can show/hide data series by clicking on the series in the legend.]


[Data updated for August 2020, or most recent data available as of that date]

As the global COVID-19 pandemic took hold in early 2020, the character of US employment came to the fore. Unlike many other western economies, employees in the US can be furloughed or made redundant relatively easily. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “in 2017, 80.4 million workers age 16 and older in the United States were paid at hourly rates, representing 58.3 percent of all wage and salary workers.”

In just a six week period, 33,000,000 Americans registered for unemployment benefits. This represents 10X to 20X the weekly average. In two months the US unemployment rate jumped from 3.5% to around 15%. While most analysts predicted 25% unemployment, in May 2020 the BLS reported a surprise drop in unemployment and put the rate at 13.3%.

Here are updated numbers as of early June 2020…

Unemployment: Way down… then “Boom!”

The simplest measure of labor supply is, of course, the unemployment rate, which essentially indicates the volume of willing labor that is not currently put to use. After a dramatic surge during the recession, unemployment in the U.S. peaked at 10% before gradually recovering to a low of 3.6% in May 2019, well below the pre-recession levels of May 2007. (Note that I plotted the unemployment rate on the right-hand axis.)

Then COVID-19 hit and an unprecedented spike of layoffs put the unemployment levels not seen since the 1930’s.

Layoffs: Way down… then “Boom!”

Now, let’s overlay the Bureau of Labor Statistics data on ‘Layoffs’ — the monthly rate at which organizations are dropping people from their payroll. From a steady pre-recession rate of 1.3% or 1.4%, we saw a surge to 2% a month. All of that unemployment had to come from somewhere, right? By May of 2010, we were back in the 1.3% zone. Companies just weren’t firing people like they used to, and workers were feeling more confident (1).

We see a tsunami wave of furloughs and layoffs as companies reacted swiftly to the shutdown orders, followed by a rapid return to close-to-normal rates at just 1.4% of the workforce layed off in a month.

Just when quitting was back in fashion

So, what about people quitting? Before the 2009 recession, 2.2% of employees in any given month would hand in their notice (not including retirements or long-term sick leave). But as soon as the recession struck, workers battened down the hatches. If you had a job in 2008, you held onto it. The rate dropped as low as 1.3% before starting to recover at the beginning of 2010 as workers started to feel more confident. By 2019 quitters were back in fashion. But with the specter of COVID-19 hanging over us, we can expect the quits rate to return to recession-era levels. They currently sit at 1.8%, but remember that switching employers is a process that takes time, so we can expect a lag in the data.

Here is the historical date (‘Quits’ is the teal line):

Wage growth and inflation: Watch this space

As many economists point out, despite these trends we have not seen an acceleration in wage growth that would drive up inflation, and in turn, interest rates. Prior to the pandemic, we were seeing slow signs of wage growth as measured by the Employer Cost Index. Since the pandemic hit, we have not seen employers lowering wages either despite the spike in unemployment. In the US, as unemployment benefits are no longer bolstered by federal programs, this dynamic may shift in the second half of the year.

[Source: BLS- Compensation (not seasonally adjusted): Employment Cost Index for total compensation, for civilian workers, by occupational group and industry]

If you want to see the Federal Reserve interest rate alongside the rest, it’s shown below in dark red. The Federal Reserve responded aggressively by lowering the core rate in 2008, and is using the same mechanism to respond to the pandemic.

Here is the historical interest rate, as set by the Federal Reserve (dark red):

Participation: Just as we were creeping up…

Let’s get back to the labor markets. There is one final data set we need to consider. It’s workforce participation, which is defined as “the civilian noninstitutional population 16 years and older that is working or actively looking for work.”

It turns out that the U.S. labor pool had been shrinking, relative to the population as a whole. This trend started in 2000 when the rate peaked around 67% and has declined steadily until 2015(2).  There are several factors behind this trend, but you will notice that it was not affected as strongly by the recession. In fact, it’s after the recession that labor participation rates gradually declined from 66% to 63%. (Note that I plotted this as 60 percentage points plus the right-hand axis so it fits neatly on one graph).

The labor participation rate had steadied at 63% as more people stepped back into the labor market. But today, driven by the pandemic, the participation rate is dropping again, and fast.

A Smarter Workforce

A final trend that is worth tracking: the US labor force is getting smarter.  Or at least better educated.  As the chart below indicates (courtesy of the US census) educational attainment in the US continues to improve with 35% of the population having achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher.  Only 10% of the population dropped out of education before completing high school – half of what it was a generation ago. This continues to go down as the population ages.  Educational attainment is highly divided down demographic lines (race, income), but overall educational attainment continues to improve.

Percent of the US population by educational attainment (1940-2017) – US Census data [source]

with 2008-2009 recession shown

Gig economy? Eh, not so much …

The post-recession improvement of the job market prompted economists at both Princeton and Harvard to revise downwards their estimates of the size of the so-called ‘Gig Economy’.  Gigs, it turns out, were a great work arrangement for some. But in general, they are a make-do solution for workers who, given the choice, would jump to traditional, full-time positions.  This is affecting the pattern of underemployment and explains in part why wages, on the whole, have not risen as expected.

The pandemic has put the gig economy under the radar. On the one hand, gig jobs with delivery services such as Instacart, Taskrabbit, GoPuff, or Shipt are busier than ever. Other sectors like Uber or Lyft have seen a dramatic drop in demand. According to a study by AppJobs , gig workers among the hardest hit by coronavirus pandemic.

Gig jobs (as freelancers have long known) live outside of the main framework our economy has instituted, and it make it harder to participate in many aspects, such as getting a mortgage [if you are in this situation, here is a handy guide from Bankrate].

For the most part, people still want the same thing: a full-time secure job with regular income and good benefits.  Who knew?

[Further reading from 02/15/2019: The fight for $15 (per hour) comes to the gig economy. ]

Labor’s not fungible

And unlike most markets with fungible commodities (Barrels of oil, bushels of corn…), labor markets are complicated. Workers face geographic constraints (in fact, today Americans were already less work-mobile than previous generations (3)) and some skill sets are more marketable than others. While these macro trends tell us which way the wind blows, hiring truly comes down to competing in a specific market and geography.

Employers in competitive markets need to insure themselves against the challenges of attracting and retaining talent while keeping their current workforce engaged, despite the turmoil of the last few months. They need to double down on creating an employee-centric culture and maintaining community while working remotely. After all, it’s the lack of internal opportunities or unanswered frustrations that drive your current talent towards the exit. Engaged employees are significantly less likely to be considering a move elsewhere.

So, there you have it. The picture for employment in the US remains uncertain. Many economists are projecting mass layoffs as the strength of the inevitable post-covid recession is felt. Others predict a rapid return to employment as stay-at-home restrictions are lifted.

My personal projection on this is that we should expect a rapid restructuring with some sector-wide layoffs, the demise of many unprofitable or unproven businesses, and the rapid return of other sectors that investors will double down on.


(1) “You’re Less Likely to Be Laid Off Today Than Any Time Since 1967” by Brad Tuttle – Money Magazine – Aug 08, 2017- http://time.com/money/4891508/unemployment-layoff-rate-jobs-market-2017/
(2) Labor force participation: what has happened since the peak? – Bureau of Labor Statistics September 2016 – https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2016/article/labor-force-participation-what-has-happened-since-the-peak.htm
(3) “Fewer Americans Strike Out for New Jobs, Crimping the Recovery” by PATRICIA COHEN – New York Time – May 24, 2016 – https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/25/business/economy/fewer-workers-choose-to-move-to-new-pastures.html

Data sources:

LNS11300000 – Civilian Labor participation rate
JTS00000000QUR – Quits
LNS14000000 – Unemployment rate
JTS00000000LDR – Layoffs & Discharges
https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/FEDFUNDS – Federal Reserve rate

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