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Job Search Before and After the Great Recession

Since the onset of the Great Recession, unemployment rates have been high and job-finding rates have been low. These persistent trends raise concerns that unemployed workers may have become discouraged by poor job prospects. To begin understanding the job searching behavior of the unemployed, we examine data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) and find that a greater proportion of the unemployed are spending time searching for a job after the Great Recession than before. We also find important differences in job search time by educational attainment, age, and gender—including decreases in search time for some groups.

To compare the amount of time the unemployed spend on their job search before and after the recession, we analyzed data from the ATUS, which asks respondents how much time they spent on various activities the previous day. Activities classified as job searching include sending out resumes, conducting interviews, commuting, asking for information, and looking for information on the internet or in the newspaper. We compared ATUS data on job searching before and after the Great Recession, combining the years 2003 to 2007 for the pre-recession period and the years 2008 to 2012 for the post-recession period.

As we would expect, the proportion of unemployed individuals who spent some time on an average day searching for a job increased from 20 percent to 24 percent after the recession. However, and perhaps surprisingly, among those unemployed who did search, the average time spent on job search looked very similar in the five years on either side of the Great Recession.

Figure 1: Time Spent on Job Search (Conditional on Searching)

The proportion of unemployed persons spending time job searching varied dramatically by level of educational attainment over the past decade. Between 2008 and 2012, for example, 17 percent of those unemployed who were high school dropouts spent some of their day searching for a job, while for those with high school diplomas or associate’s degrees the figure is 23 percent, and for those holding at least a bachelor’s degree it is 35 percent.

Although time spent by the unemployed on job searching increased across all educational attainment levels after the Great Recession, the increase was largest at the extremes. For unemployed high school graduates and those with an associate’s degree, the average time spent searching increased from 32 minutes to 37 minutes a day. However, for unemployed high school dropouts the average search time increased from 17 minutes to 28 minutes, and for those with at least a bachelor’s degree it increased by almost 50 percent from 46 minutes to 67.

Figure 2: Job Search Times Across Educational Attainment Levels

For nearly all age categories, unemployed males with at least a bachelor’s degree spent much more time searching for a job after the recession than before it. For males between 20 and 30 the average search time more than tripled, and for males between 30 and 40, and 40 and 50 the average search time increased by 65 and 76 percent, respectively. For males over 50, average job search time actually decreased slightly over this period.

Figure 3: Average Job search Time: Unemployed Males with At Least a Bachelor's Degree

Recent changes in the job search time of unemployed females with at least a bachelor’s degree were different from males. For example, in contrast to males, job search time did not increase uniformly for females between 20 and 50. In fact, for most females in this age range, average job-search time actually decreased. So while the average job-search time of females 20 to 30 years of age with at least a bachelor’s degree was higher than for males of the same age and education before the Great Recession, this pattern had reversed in the period of 2008 to 2012. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the job-search behavior of unemployed females over 50 with at least a bachelor’s degree changed dramatically before and after the Great Recession.

Figure 4: Average Job search Time: Unemployed Females with At Least a Bachelor's Degree

While our findings do not rule out the existence of discouraged workers, we found that total job search time has increased in recent years. Our broader finding is that the job search patterns of the unemployed have changed in the aftermath of the Great Recession, with important differences by educational attainment, age, and gender, including decreases in search time for some groups. Understanding these differences could help us to understand not only recent changes in the labor market, but also in educational attainment, household formation, and other important processes driving our economy.

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