Excerpted from Wisconsin Examiner By Erik Gunn

Even in better times, there have almost always been more people seeking work than employers had openings

Just a few months ago, employers across Wisconsin and the nation were complaining about widespread shortages of people to do the jobs they were offering.

Today, that’s been turned on its head: with unemployment at 12%, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, a jobs shortage has taken the place of the labor shortage that was the top concern of manufacturers and other industries.

The jobs shortage is especially obvious in the current recession, but Milwaukee policy analyst David Riemer says it has actually been with us more often than not for decades. Only the pandemic, and the dramatic nature of the current gap between those looking for work and the work that is available, has made it as visible as it is now.

Riemer has been examining jobs and employment data for decades, advising government officials including former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, former governors Tommy Thompson and Jim Doyle, and former President Bill Clinton. As far back as the 1990s, he has compared data on job openings with statistics on unemployment, finding a persistent mismatch between the two.

Job shortages, he’s found, have been a feature of the American economy for decades, although they are rarely discussed.

“Even in normal times, good times — except when the market is superhot — there have been more unemployed people, even when narrowly defined, than there have been job openings,” Riemer says.

Only since December 2000 has the federal government systematically tracked data on job openings, as reported by employers. In the last two decades, even as unemployment fell during economic expansions in the first half of the 2000s and again in the years following the 2008 Great Recession, the number of people unemployed and looking for work has always exceeded the number of job vacancies that employers were reporting.
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