— The good news about even the weakest of economic recoveries is that it will lure more people back into the job market.
The bad news is that those people, who have been missing from official statistics showing how many people are unemployed, could keep the 9.6 percent unemployment rate from dropping as as quickly as many would like.
The weak economy has been so hard on some jobseekers that they have stopped even trying to find work. Now, amid what is officially being classified as an economic recovery, economists expect that some of those "missing workers" will jump back into the job search.
“We have this pool of missing workers, and as jobs are created, they’re going to start coming in and then that keeps the unemployment rate from coming down,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a labor issues think tank.
Shierholz estimates that the recession has generated about 3.5 million of those “missing workers” — men and women who should be in the labor force right now, but for whatever reason are neither working nor looking for work.
Randy Schuck was one of them.
Schuck, 57, had been had been looking for work for around two years when she finally just gave up late last year.
“I don’t even remember December, January, February at all,” she recalled recently. “It was just a really dark time for me. I just felt like there weren’t any jobs out there for me. I was too old and nobody wanted to hire an educated, older person.”
In March of this year, a friend found her a job. Although it only lasted three months, the short stint with a company that builds cellular towers was enough to lift her spirits, and reinvigorate her drive to find a job.
Schuck, 57, hasn’t found another position yet, but she’s actively looking again.
“It was like that saved me, just that three months of working,” she said. “It built my self-esteem up again.”
It's not yet clear whether more people like Schuck are getting back into the job hunt. The number of people in the labor force did grow by 550,000 between July and August, to a little more than 154 million people. To be counted back in the labor force, all it takes is one job application in the preceding four weeks.
Shierholz said just one month of data showing growth in the labor force isn’t enough to know whether the trend is already afoot.
“It will start happening,” she said. ”Whether or not it’s starting to happen yet … it’s still up in the air.”
The labor force participation rate, or the number of working age people who are employed or jobless but looking for work, is currently at 64.7 percent, compared with 66.4 percent when the recession began in December of 2007. And there’s also still plenty of evidence that many Americans continue to be pessimistic about their prospects of finding a job.
The number of discouraged workers — those who aren’t looking for work because they don’t think any work is out there — hit a high of 1.2 million in June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It has since declined slightly, to about 1.1 million as of August, but remains much higher than a year earlier.
Most jobseekers don’t need statistics to tell them that it remains very hard to find work.
Schuck, who lost her first job in September of 2007 as she was going through a divorce, said the job market hasn’t improved much since the last time she was actively looking.
Meanwhile, her personal situation has worsened considerably. Her mother passed away last December after being ill for some time. And after three years mostly without work, her home in Banning, Calif., is in foreclosure and she can no longer pay her credit card bills. She said the hit to her credit rating has cost her some potential jobs.
Schuck has had two job interviews in the past six months, but nothing has panned out.
For other jobseekers, taking time off has seemed like the only viable option in a really difficult market.
After John Hampton was laid off in September of 2008, he spent about six months looking for anything that would pay the bills.
When nothing developed, he decided the best thing he could do was stop looking for work and go back to school to finish his bachelor’s degree, even if it meant taking on student loan debt and going on food stamps.
Hampton said he was a few weeks into his second semester at Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, Ky., last December when he was robbed at gunpoint. Although he only lost $38 in cash, the experience traumatized him. He dropped out of school and moved back to his hometown of Glasgow, Ky., and in May he finally landed a part-time, minimum wage job.
A couple of weeks ago, he landed an even better, full-time job with a local manufacturer. At 51, he hopes he’ll be able to stay at this job until he can retire at age 72.
“I finally found something, but it took me two years to find it,” Hampton said.
Although he didn’t finish his degree, Hampton said attending college kept him going during a difficult time when it seemed like there was nothing else for him.
“The schooling was what saved my life,” he said.
After Larry Palomares, 51, lost the management job he’d held for nearly a decade, he decided to take the job search slow. After all, he had a few months of severance payments to help him out financially, and he figured the job market might get better in a few months’ time.
He wasn’t too worried about finding a new position.
“I’d been gainfully employed for nine years and I thought, ‘I’m still employable. My skills are a fit for somebody,’ ” recalled Palomares, who is a hardware engineer in Redwood City, Calif.
When he did start looking more aggressively about 10 months ago, he found that the market was still weak and prospects were few. But in early spring, he said things started to pick up.
He’s had a few interviews, including one last week.
“I’m a little bit more optimistic now,” he said.