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Job Search of the Unemployed by Duration of Unemployment

The length of time the jobless spent searching for work before finding a job increased from 5.2 to 10.4 weeks between 2007 and 2010, edging down to 10.0 in 2011; for the unemployed who eventually quit looking and left the labor force, duration also increased sharply between 2007 and 2011, from 8.7 to 21.4 weeks

(April 16, 2012) - Following the 2007-2009 recession, the number of persons who were out of work for an extended time rose to record high levels. Consequently, median duration of unemployment rose to 21.4 weeks in 2010 and held through 2011; this measure, however, represents the ongoing number of weeks individuals had been unemployed when surveyed and is not a measure of a completed period of job search. That is, it does not indicate how many weeks an unemployed person took to find employment or leave the labor force.

To provide estimates that more closely resemble "completed spells of unemployment," the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) created measures of the number of weeks the jobless took to find work or quit looking and leave the labor force. These data show that the median length of time an unemployed person searched before finding a job increased sharply between 2007 and 2010, from 5.2 to 10.4 weeks; in 2011, it edged down to 10.0 weeks. Unemployed individuals looked much longer for work in 2011, compared with 2007, before giving up and leaving the labor force, 21.4 weeks versus 8.7 weeks, respectively.

Background on labor force flows

Labor force flows measure the transitions from one month to the next of individuals as they change their labor force status between employment and unemployment or as they enter or leave the labor market. The flows also measure the number of persons who remained employed, unemployed, or not in the labor force over the month. Each month, the Current Population Survey (CPS) is administered to about three-quarters of the same households (sample) as in the previous month.

This month-to-month overlap allows for the calculation of the separate flows. The flows provide the underlying dynamics to the net change in official "stock" estimates-such as employment and unemployment- that the BLS publishes each month.2 In any given month, a person is in one of three labor force states: employed (E), unemployed (U), or not in the labor force (N). The next month, that person could either have the same status or change to one of the other two states. Nine of the labor market flow possibilities can be expressed with the following 3 3 matrix: jump to matrix .

Other flows, such as those due to normal increases or decreases in population, are not discussed further in this article because of their marginal influence on changes to labor force estimates. 3 The notation of the matrix is such that the first letter denotes the labor force status in the previous month and the second letter denotes the status in the current month. Thus, EE represents all individuals who remained employed over the month (not necessarily with the same employer), UE is the number of unemployed persons in the previous month who became employed in the current month, EU is the number employed persons in the previous month who were unemployed in the current month, and so forth.

Most transitions from employment to unemployment (EU) represent job loss, whereas transitions from unemployment to employment (UE) represent persons who sought and found jobs.4 The CPS flows, however, do not specifically reveal why people changed their labor force status. For example, one cannot determine whether employed persons who drop out of the labor force (EN) do so voluntarily or involuntarily, whether NE and NU represent new or returning entrants to the labor force, or whether jobless persons who quit looking for work (UN) are discouraged over job prospects.

Randy E. Ilg and Eleni Theodossiou are economists in the Division of Labor Force Statistics, Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics (OEUS), Bureau of Labor Statistics. Email: ilg.randy @ or theodossiou.eleni @ bls. gov.

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