Recent Part-time Job Increase Is Not a Good Sign

Many have noted the large September increase in “part-time employment for economic reasons” reported in the BLS household survey. The 582,000 increase in these part time jobs caused total employment to rise by 873,000—a major reason for the decrease of the overall unemployment rate, and the broader U-6 measure of labor underutilization—which adds in this part-time employment—did not decline at all.

This increase in part time jobs is not a good sign for the economy.

Joe LaVorgna, chief US economist at Deutsche Bank, argues that the part-time increase is likely due to the election. He offers two pieces of evidence. First, there was an unusually large gain in non-private employment, defined as total employment less “private industries” employment, which thus includes campaign workers who organize grass roots efforts, make phone calls, knock on doors, or help at political conventions. Second, there was an unusually large increase in employment in the 20 to 24 year age group—a typical age for campaign workers. The explanation is appealing because both Democrats and Republicans are increasing such grass roots campaigns. State data—especially from the swing states—is needed to confirm LaVorgna’s hypothesis. But if true the increase in part time employment is not a sign of an improving economy: it implies that the jobs gain in September is largely temporary.

Another view is that the increase in part-time employment is directly due to the weak recovery, and a sign that it is getting weaker. Surges in part time employment frequently occur in times of economic stress. Consider, for example, all the months in which part time employment rose by 500,000 or more. There are 13 such monthly increases in the BLS data base—Jan 1958, Mar 1958, Jan 1975, May 1980, Oct 1981, Feb 1982, Feb 1991, Sep 2001, Nov 2008, Dec 2008, Feb 2009, Sep 2010, Sep 2012. With two exceptions, every one of these occurred during recessions when the economy was sharply contracting. The two exceptions are in the current recovery, which ia another measure of its weakness.

Even more troublesome is that in the past 6 months of the recovery, the entire employment increase was more than accounted for by part time jobs: Total employment rose by 940,000 from March to September and part time employment rose by 941,000. This deterioration in the labor market is consistent with the dip in economic growth to 1.3 percent in the 2nd quarter. It too is not a sign that the economy is improving.

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