U.S. blue collar army chases few vacancies

DALLAS (Reuters) - For every open construction job in America, there are more than 20 people lining up to apply.

Few statistics illustrate the gravity of the U.S. recession as clearly as the yawning gap between job seekers and vacancies, highlighting the struggle President Barack Obama has had to contain job losses since he took over in January.

Research by Andrew Sum, a labor economist at Boston’s Northeastern University, shows that the ratio of unemployed persons to job openings has widened in America to 5.7 to 1 in August of this year from 1.2 to 1 in December of 2000.

For construction workers the ratio is an eye-popping 22.1 to one, while for manufacturing it is 13 to 1. In December of 2000 these same ratios were 3.5 and 1.7 respectively.

“Basically what we are saying is that there is a massive labor surplus in the United States ... and the working class is getting crushed,” Sum told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Jeff Switalski, 40, a pipefitter in Chicago, is feeling the weight. He has been out of work for months.

“I don’t know what I’ll do. Retraining? What am I going to be, a mall cop? Computing? They got a million guys waiting to get back into those jobs,” he said.

The American working class has been taking it on the chin for decades, with wages stagnating or falling as manufacturing jobs went overseas and union membership fell.


Their discontent now, with so many chasing so few jobs, could be costly to Obama’s Democratic Party in next year’s congressional elections and could threaten the party’s majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress.

Obama took office with the economy in a steep slide that began under former President George W. Bush. Since the start of the recession in December 2007, the unemployed total has risen by 7.6 million to 15.1 million and the unemployment rate has doubled to 9.8 percent.

Obama pushed a $787 billion stimulus package through Congress in February to back his pledge to create or save up to 4 million jobs by 2010 but analysts disagree over its impact.

The monthly rate of job losses has fallen from 740,000 in January to about 260,000 in September, but the percentage of jobless is still edging up toward 10 percent and many economists forecast a very slow recovery in the job market.

The administration is being pressed to extend a first-time home-buyers benefit that would help save construction jobs and took steps on Wednesday to foster lending to small businesses which are often seen as engines of job growth.

Democratic activists have long struggled to stem a drain of white working class men from the party and a new sense of insecurity has pread among that group.

Jay Childs, 39, who lost his job as a superintendent for a Kansas City-area construction firm, said he had little hope of finding a new job in the sector anytime soon. “There is virtually nothing to be had out there,” he said.


Sum, using Department of Labor statistics, said the mismatch between labor supply and demand probably had not been this wide since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Analysts note that people are staying unemployed longer in this recession than in past downturns. Labor Department data shows that more than one-third of those unemployed have been out of work for more than six months.

A report released on Wednesday by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA), the industry’s trade association, showed that in the year to September, 41 of the 50 states had shed construction jobs in double-digit percentages.

Louisiana was the only state to add such jobs.

In Tucson, Arizona, a state which the AGCA said lost about 25 percent of its construction jobs over the 12 months to September, Ruben Ibanez, 41, leafed through employment adverts in a free paper as he stood outside a supermarket.

“I’m looking for work, but it’s very hard. Wherever you look it’s slow ... Construction, landscaping, there’s no jobs, no one’s hiring,” he said.

With five cents in his pocket and a photo of his pregnant wife in his wallet, he is hardly in a position to wait for a recovery.

Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Tuscon, Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Andrew Stern in Chicago, and Andy Sullivan in Washington; Editing by David Storey