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Jobless linger in feds' safety net

| Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Too bad America's hardest jobs to fill don't include movie star or sports hero. There'd be no shortage of applicants.

But how about machinist or commercial truck driver?

Engineer, salesperson, medical professional?

Those are among America's 10 hardest-to-fill jobs. The others: CNC programmer (manufacturing engineer), welder, accountant, and information technology and administrative personnel.

Wonder of wonders, in this U.S. economy, good jobs are looking for people. The latest astonishing number: 3.9 million.

That's from the Bureau of Labor Statistics if you don't believe it, and who could blame you? The national obsession, fed by politics and news media, is with unemployment and how hard our government has to work to bring it down.

What we might well ponder more is the gap between the classic “help wanted” sign and the folks who can't, won't or don't have the skills to go for it.

Our “labor participation rate” mysteriously keeps shrinking, a “tragedy in the making,” as a nationwide job placement firm puts it.

“When Americans quit looking for work because they conclude that not working beats working, America faces a significant problem,” says Express Employment Services Inc. of Oklahoma City, with more than 600 franchises and $2.5 billion sales, in a report titled “The Great Shift.”

Since the last recession, working has recovered a few million opportunities — but not working is up, too, hidden by going uncounted in the labor force.

Just 63.4 percent of eligible Americans held jobs as of July. That's a 2.7-percentage-point drop in a half-dozen years. We've got 140 million jobs but 90 million or so Americans (including the very young and old) not in the labor force.

What's behind the shift?

For one thing, the first wave of baby boomer retirements, many of them on edge about whether their money will hold out.

Also a tendency of some jobless in their prime years, including Millennials coming of age since 2000, to give up looking. Too discouraged, it's said. Thus sidelined are 1.8 million young adults, a wildly haywire number, given the jobs going begging.

A growing number of us are “stuck in the safety net of government benefits,” says the report. Stick-out example: disability benefits, now received by 14 million Americans, including many formerly employed. The Social Security Administration reports a 44 percent increase in claims since the recession. States are partly to blame; they like to shift people to disability from welfare or unemployment, because the federal government pays. Some law firms also promote disability claims.

A shrinking labor force poses woe and conflict down the road. When Social Security started in the 1930s, 12 workers paid into the system for every retiree drawing out. Now the ratio is 1.5 to 1. Seventeen million more immigrants might be needed by 2020 to make up for Americans sitting it out.

A bright note: Express Employment founder and CEO Bob Funk, 72, has placed a lot of people. He said in a Wall Street Journal interview that just three essentials exist for finding and keeping a job: personal integrity, a strong work ethic, and the ability to pass a drug test.

Jack Markowitz is a Thursday columnist for Trib Total Media. Email him at jmarkowitz@tribweb.com.

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