Business

Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

Unemployment is rising, and that’s good news. Really.

Job seekers at a job fair in Sunrise, Fla., last week.

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Job seekers at a job fair in Sunrise, Fla., last week.

Sometimes, when the state’s unemployment rate goes up, it’s actually good news. It means jobs have become so plentiful that long-discouraged folks start thinking, “Maybe I should look for work again.”

This seems to be happening right now in Massachusetts, judging from to the latest labor market information released Thursday. While the state’s unemployment rate rose from 3.9 percent to 4.2 percent, the overall report shows a labor market so strong that it’s attracting more and more job applicants.

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Start with the simplest measure: the number of jobs statewide. About 2,900 new jobs were created in May, for a total of nearly 60,000 more jobs than we had at this time last year.

Even after accounting for the fact that our population is growing, this good news story still holds up. For every 100 adults in the state, 64 of them have jobs. That’s actually slightly higher than before the recession of 2007-2009, meaning that after a decade of slow growth the labor market has finally crawled out of its economic crater.

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In fact, the picture might be even brighter than that. With baby boomers entering their retirement years, you’d expect the number of people with jobs to naturally go down. It hasn’t,which means younger workers are probably landing jobs in record numbers.

But hold on. All this good news should raise a question in skeptical minds: If jobs are really more plentiful, why should the unemployment rate be going up?

There is a perfectly good explanation, and it has to do with the fact that not everyone is looking for work.

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At any given time, the state has lots of students, retirees, full-time caregivers, and those who’ve given up hope of gainful employment. So long as these folks stay on the sidelines, they don’t count as unemployed. They’re simply left out of the equation.

Now when job openings start to increase, some of these people will suddenly decide to send out resumes and contribute to their family income. But note that it takes a while to actually land a job, so at first this wave of new entrants will drive up the unemployment rate — not because the labor market is weak but precisely because it’s tight.

This isn’t some idle theory; the latest numbers really do show a big increase in the number of people looking for work in Massachusetts. All told, 112,000 new job seekers have entered the labor market since January, the largest four-month surge on record.

Recent months have also seen a drop in the number of so-called underemployed workers, including part-timers eager for more hours and those who say they’d work if they could. A mix of falling underemployment and rising unemployment is exactly what you’d expect if discouraged residents were relaunching their stalled quests for better work.

Two cheers, then, for Massachusetts’ increasing unemployment rate. It’s going up for the best possible reason: because more and more people feel inspired to look for work again. Now let’s just hope they can find the good jobs they seek.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.
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