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Published: Friday, 4/12/2013

Where are the jobs?

The paradox is becoming depressingly familiar: The nation’s unemployment rate fell slightly in March, to 7.6 percent from 7.7 percent in February. Last month’s rate was a four-year low. Yet the economy created far fewer jobs in March — 88,000 — than the average of 196,000 new jobs recorded in the prior six months.

What accounts for this disparity? For every worker who got a job last month, almost six withdrew from the job market and thus weren’t counted in the official unemployment numbers. They have retired, or have gone back to school, or are getting by on disability payments, or have just given up looking for work, in frustration and discouragement.

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The percentage of Americans of working age who are part of the civilian labor force — 63.3 percent — is at its lowest point in nearly 34 years. Back then, women’s presence in the work force was far less than it is now. At its peak in 2000, the participation rate was 67.3 percent.

Although the U.S. economy is slowly coming back, almost four years after the Great Recession formally ended, it remains far weaker than in previous recoveries. Manufacturing, so important to Ohio’s economy, continues to struggle.

Ohio’s unemployment rate — 7 percent in February — remains below the national average (in Lucas County, it was 8.7 percent; in Toledo, 9.2 percent). But according to a new survey by PNC Bank, just 14 percent of owners of small and mid-sized businesses in Ohio plan to add workers in the next six months, down from 17 percent six months ago.

Business owners typically explain their reluctance to hire workers by citing “uncertainty” over the fragility of the recovery and about the effects of Obamacare and federal tax policy on their companies. But other factors also are at work, in the state and nationally.

The federal budget sequester that took effect March 1 doesn’t appear to have had a major impact on employment yet. But the longer it persists, the more federal workers who will lose their jobs — another reason for Congress and the Obama Administration to get serious about reaching a budget deal.

Last month’s unemployment rate among Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 was 11.7 percent. Many employers complain that young job candidates lack work skills, both basic and advanced.

The nation’s education system, from preschool to colleges and universities, must improve if it is to prepare workers to compete in the global economy. This need becomes more urgent as a slow-growing number of active American workers must support an ever-growing number of retired ones.

Meanwhile, the number of workers 65 and older rose last month. Some can’t afford to retire.

The March jobless numbers, like any other monthly unemployment report, represent a snapshot in time. But the longer-term trend is clear: For every job opening that emerges, there are more than three jobless Americans.

For them, the notion of economic recovery reflected in the high-flying stock market remains a bitter joke. That condition can’t be sustained indefinitely.

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