Meet the Author

Murat Tasci |

Research Economist

Murat Tasci

Murat Tasci is a research economist in the Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. He is primarily interested in macroeconomics and labor economics. His current work focuses on business cycles and labor markets, labor market policies, and search frictions.

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Meet the Author

Beth Mowry |

Research Assistant

Beth Mowry

Beth Mowry was formerly a research assistant in the Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Her work focuses on labor markets and business cycles.

02.02.09

Economic Trends

Labor Turnover

Murat Tasci and Beth Mowry

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks the hiring and firing activity of establishments across the nation in its Job Openings and Labor Turnover (JOLTS) series. One important statistic from JOLTS is the net hires rate, the difference between the hires rate and the separations rate. A positive net hires rate indicates an increase in aggregate employment across establishments. Up until May 2008, the net hires rate had been positive for almost five years.

More recently, other JOLTS statistics have been painting a clearly deteriorating picture of the labor market. This is true of turnover numbers, such as separations and hires, as well as labor demand measures such as job openings. Aggregate hires registered their largest decline in November 2008 (607,000) and now stand at an all-time low of 3,548,000. Similarly, job openings declined 208,000 in November—their lowest level since September 2003.

One well-known problem with the JOLTS dataset is that it overestimates net job creation relative to the Current Employment Survey (CES). Hence, a change in the net hires rate may not imply a similar change in CES payroll numbers from one month to the next. For instance, the CES entered negative territory in January 2008, while JOLTS implied net employment gains until four months later. Nevertheless, JOLTS provides our only measure of aggregate turnover, and more importantly, job openings data.

Since the beginning of the JOLTS series, there have been two clear downturns in aggregate employment. The first was from December 2000 to June 2003, and the second is the ongoing downturn that started in January 2008. When we look at the behavior of labor turnover and job openings in both of these downturns and the expansion in between, several patterns emerge.

First of all, for the aggregate economy, average monthly job openings, separations, and hires were all higher in the expansion than in either downturn. At the sector level however, this is not always the case. A secular increase in the education and health services sector, for instance, provided robust growth and reallocation in the sector over time. In fact, the demand for workers in this sector, as measured by job openings, was higher during the downturns than in the expansion.

Average Job Openings and Labor Turnover by Industry

 
Job openings
Hires
Total separations

12/00-
6/03
7/03-
12/07
1/08-
11/08
12/00-
6/03
7/03-
12/07
1/08-
11/08
12/00-
6/03
7/03-
12/07
1/08-
11/08
Total private
2845
3253
3023
3962
4362
3961
4012
4164
4085
Mininga
7
11
15
19
20
27
19
19
24
Construction
115
132
101
370
385
315
388
383
394
Manufacturing
232
282
232
340
352
276
457
367
355
Trade, transportation, and public utilities
514
325
557
322
1006
867
955
981
954
Informationa
73
100
60
72
70
52
84
74
58
Finance, insurance, and real estatea
176
231
193
177
197
190
173
192
197
Professional and business services
544
640
638
672
841
795
611
775
773
Education and health services
635
621
661
440
470
496
391
410
430

Note: December 2000 to June 2003 indicates the first downturn in aggregate employment. July 2003 to December 2007 is the expansion. January 2008 to November 2008 is the second downturn.
a. Data are not seasonally adjusted.
Sources: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We also see the effects of a booming housing sector in the data on construction jobs for the first seven years of the series. More specifically, hires and separations were very stable between the first downturn and the following expansion. However, as the problems grew in the housing sector, construction employment declined, as did the demand for workers and overall turnover.

Even though it is far from complete, the current downturn shows a lot of similarity with the previous one with respect to measures of turnover and job openings. Average monthly hires and separations are about the same in the aggregate and in some sectors (such as mining; trade, transportation, and utilities; and education and health services). Even though total job openings have been higher on average in the current downturn, they have stayed at relatively the same level for some sectors, most notably for manufacturing. However, we need to be cautious here, since low demand for labor might persist for some time, significantly changing the picture.

It is often hard to get a meaningful understanding of labor turnover by looking at monthly levels of hiring, separations, and job openings in isolation of the broader trends. If we look at the trends in hiring and job openings, we see that both have been declining gradually since the end of 2006. The declining trend seems to be sharper for job openings than hires.

As we noted, aggregate trends can disguise differences across sectors. For instance, consider the construction and financial services sectors, which are expected to be hardest hit by the turmoil in the housing and financial markets. Employment activity in the construction sector is slightly different from the aggregate economy’s. First, the construction sector does not seem to have large swings in trend like the aggregate economy. Unlike the aggregate economy, hiring in construction started to trend down in November 2004.

Employment in the financial services sector also behaved differently than the aggregate economy. For one thing, financial services employment did not experience a sharp decline in its trend during the 2001 recession. Instead, most of the decline in the demnd for workers in this industry coincided with the onset of housing and financial market troubles starting in mid-2006.