Readers: some of the dialogue in this blog is set in the future (sometime after the year 2020). Entries addressing events in the the future assume there has been a 5th revolution in the US — the Revenge Revolution. More about the Revenge Revolution, a list of earlier revolutions and the author, Entry #1.

Periodically I write a “sense check” to assess whether in the next few years, a revolution in the US is still possible or whether the entire exercise is based on a statistical aberration — i.e., a roughly 50-year cycle between major upheavals in the US.  Most recent sense check, ENTRY #387.  

Some of the entries are part of a series.  Several series are available as easy-to-read booklets for download:

Prelude to the current series of entries: I’ve concluded Trump is a lunatic and the administration filled with lapdogs save a couple of people at CDC.  Instead of wasting time commenting on actions by Trump, I thought it more productive to begin discussing what happens in the US once the coronavirus is more under control.  #378 began the series. At this point not sure how many entries.  Comments and suggestions welcome.

ENTRY #395: What has happened to unemployment during the Coronavirus? How severe is unemployment?

Counting the number of people who have filed unemployment claims paints a grim picture. Beginning March 2020, claims per week jumped dramatically.  Toward the end of March, new claims for unemployment for just one week  totaled nearly 7 million.  New claims per week have fallen since but seven months after the peak in March new claims are on average more than 3x higher than earlier on 2020.

Keep in mind these numbers are new claims. The numbers represent new people who are now unemployed. Obviously, some people who filed claims will be called back to work or find another job, but the net amount of those unemployed keeps increasing.  Further, throughout the 2020/2021 winter, the number of weekly new claims for unemployment is likely to remain extraordinarily high by historic standards.

What about the people who are self-employed?  You know, 1099 contract workers, consultants, musicians, even undocumented workers?  What’s happened to their workload?  They all pay taxes.

Contract, or gig workers, have seen jobs dry up as well. There is a provision in the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) that enables gig workers to file for a limited amount of economic relief.  The program is administered by states, which makes tracking claims nearly impossible. 

Nevertheless, if we add the number of gig workers seeking  CARES-based income supplement to those filing unemployment claims, the total likely exceeds 1,000,000 every week since early March 2020.  Like those employed by companies, the number of gig workers working fewer hours will increase during the winter.

Some may comment, “Is unemployment really that bad? I mean, the unemployment rate lately has been less than 10.0%. And it bounced back fast following the spike in the Spring.  Early in the Obama Administration, unemployment reached 10.0% and it took years to decline. What’s the big deal?  Trump’s done much better than Obama ever did.”

How Is the Unemployment Rate Calculated?  The unemployment rate is the ratio of those unemployed and looking for work to those in the workforce – those employed and unemployed.  Let’s say there are a thousand people in the workforce. 100 are unemployed and actively looking for a job and 900 are working. The unemployment rate would be 10.0%, or 100/1,000.

Now let’s assume that 50 of the 100 unemployed get discouraged and quit looking for a job. The new unemployment rate would be 50 actively looking for work / 950 (900 employed + 50 actively working), or 5.3%.

What happened to the unemployment rate?  The rate dropped from 10.0% to 5.3%, even though the only change was 50 people became discouraged and quit looking for work.  

What Else Does the Unemployment Rate Not Count? Let’s say that of the 900 people working, 200 are being forced to work part-time because their employer reduced their hours.  Even though working part time, the 200 are counted as “fully employed” when calculating the unemployment rate.   

So what’s the real unemployment/underemployment rate when one considers those who are only working part time and those who are so discouraged about finding another job they quit looking for work?  We know the rate is not 5.3%, which would be the official government number. 

The real rate is more like 30.0% — 200 underemployed, 50 unemployed and looking and 50 unemployed but who’ve quit looking.  In our example, there are 300 out of 1,000 who are either unemployed or underemployed and looking for more work.

If the numbers in this simple example seem ridiculously high, the 30.0% rate probably understates the true underemployment rate the US experiencing in Fall 2020.  Even for professional economists, calculating a reasonable estimate of unemployment/underemployment is nearly impossible because the Trump Administration refuses to disclose what most of us would consider any credible information about many parts of the economy.

As stated in Entry #394, the unemployment problem will not go away post COVID-19. During the initial lockdown to control the virus, organizations began to understand how to conduct operations with far fewer people than in the past. Consumers also began to think differently.

The change in thinking will affect some sectors of the post-COVID-19 economy more than others.  Portions of the service sector will be particularly hard hit.  Even with a vaccine, how many people will be willing to attend sporting events if there are thousands of other people jammed next to one another? How many people will be willing to eat in crowded restaurants, travel on crowded airplanes, ride jam-packed trains/buses, stay in unfamiliar hotels, go to amusement parks, etc.?  While we won’t know the extent for a number of years, assuming a 25-30% loss of pre-COVID-19 travel-and-entertainment-related jobs would be a reasonable estimate. 

Manufacturing output should rise post-virus but the number of jobs in manufacturing will continue to erode relative to output.  The trend will continue to replace workers with more automation, use of sophisticated software and robotics.

What’s the Solution? After mulling over this problem for a number of months, my conclusion is a two-pronged solution is necessary.

  1. WPA-like programs that focus on building/rebuilding critical infrastructure throughout the United States. Yes, such programs require lots of manual labor.  And no, such programs are not a long-term solution.  However, WPA-like programs will employ a portion of the workforce that will have an extremely difficult time transitioning to a digital-based economy. Plus, WPA-like programs will address much of the US infrastructure that needs repairing and upgrading.
  2. Repurposing many existing jobs.  Initial repurposing training for some jobs could be completed in 10-12 weeks.  The basic training would be followed by a job using the skills learned and additional on-the-job training (OJT). 

Will some of the jobs after basic training be considered “make work”? Yes, but any kind of training includes time to practice and expand basic skills.

When I joined General Motors following undergrad (many moons ago), I worked at Cadillac HQ in Detroit.  At the time the Clark Street Cadillac facility was huge, including two assembly line, paint shop, welding, full engine machining and a bunch of other stuff.  The campus totaled nearly 50 acres and included many buildings with 3-4 stories. Who knows how many million square feet of floor space.  For someone who likes cars and manufacturing, the facility was like one giant candy store.

My initial assignment was in a department called “Project Control.”  The department’s primary function was to evaluate various proposed expenditures – new equipment in Engine Machining Department, e.g.

Truth be known, most of my early assignments really were “make work,” since the guys in the department who’d been around awhile already knew the answer. But I’d be given an assignment and off I go to find some department located in this huge complex. 

The purposes of these assignments were: (i) can he find the way out to the department and back without getting lost too many times; (ii) help me begin to understand the breadth and depth of the complexity involved in manufacturing a car/truck; (iii) can he understand the scope and purpose of the proposed project and write a coherent recommendation?

What do I remember from those early days on the job? Frankly I do not remember any specific project. What I do remember is beginning to understand that manufacturing components for a vehicle and then assembling that vehicle is an incredibly complicated task, but also one that fascinates me to this day.

I also remember discovering all kinds of places in the plant to eat. One cafeteria, for example, had great pastrami sandwiches every Thursday. I also remember finding vending machines that dispensed ice cream bars. The bars would just fit inside the canister for the plant-wide pneumatic tube system.  While on these assignments one of my tasks might be to send ice cream bars back to the office via the tube system.

While some of those assignments were make-work, I think the learning from those assignments served me and GM well for my entire career. I’ve also applied many of the lessons learned to situations post GM.

Now back to the problem at hand.  How do we, societal we, train people to transition to a more digital economy?  First, we need to understand and appreciate that the training will not be completed overnight. We also need to understand that some of the projects, especially those early in the training cycle, will seem like make work. And, we also need to understand that some people will not be able to make the transition as effectively.

However, if we don’t start transitioning now, then the US will continue to fall behind countries with more advanced or more disciplined education systems and/or fall behind countries that have fully committed to a digital economy.  How do we truly make America great again?  To be continued, including some discussion about changes in approach to education, from K through grad school.