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Help Wanted

The Conference Board has a nifty way of gauging labor demand each month before the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases its monthly employment estimate. The organization's Help Wanted OnLine (HWOL) data series scans 16,000 online job board sources, including corporate and local job boards, for advertised job vacancies. The HWOL program uses a midmonth survey reference period, which is aligned with the BLS's "job search" time period to provide a more accurate comparison of labor supply and demand in the U.S. economy.

But what the data series suggested about labor demand in August on Wednesday wasn't particularly good news. While the series suggests there are more online job advertisements in most places than there were during the prerecession "good times," the number of ads seems to be trailing off over the last few months, both nationally and at a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) level, particularly for most Sixth District MSAs, hinting that labor demand may be lagging behind stagnant orders figures and tepid sales at local retailers.

Total Online Labor Demand

As usual, it's never a good idea to draw too many conclusions from one month of data, so I took a deeper look at the average of the last three. Though the Miami MSA still appears to have fewer total job advertisements than it did before the recession (see chart 1), in terms of growth in total job advertisements, Miami takes the cake among the Sixth District's MSAs for growth in total ads over the last three months (see chart 2). Particularly, the Conference Board series implies that demand for professional and related employment in the Miami area has picked up over the last three months, by far more than it has in other District MSAs. The similar trend is true to a lesser effect in management and business/financial employment in Miami.

Labor demand for occupations in sales and office recorded fairly healthy gains across most Sixth District MSAs, unless you're in Atlanta, where the number of ads for sales and office jobs declined over the last three months.

Demand for construction and maintenance jobs is predictably weak given the long-gloomy anecdotes and data we've been seeing on the industry, but perhaps more troubling is the very modest number of ads for production and transportation jobs. Manufacturing and transportation have been bright spots in a bleak economic outlook up until recently, when the ISM and several regional manufacturing surveys began to indicate stagnation or contraction. You can see in the chart below that want ads for occupations in production and transportation services industries experienced declines in four out of six major District MSAs, while gains in Jacksonville over the last three-month period were meager.

Growth in the number of total ads in this series for Miami should be tempered with this post's original chart: it is the only District MSA that still has not reached the level of want ads placed prerecession, but from the looks of the last three months of online help wanted ads, maybe the MSA can soon catch up in terms of labor demand.

Total Ads by Occupation and MSA

No responsible analyst could end this post without addressing the nuances of this data series. The Conference Board's HWOL series was first published in July 2005 as a developmental series, but it "went big" in October 2006, so it's a relatively new data series. Also, it's worth noting that the number of ads online or in a newspaper doesn't exactly translate exactly to hiring or employment levels; the Conference Board is merely claiming a correlation. (The Conference Board's HWOL web page has more information on the finer points of the HWOL data.) To put these data in perspective, the Conference Board's HWOL series indicated 153,613 fewer want ads in July than in June, yet the BLS announced shortly thereafter that 163,000 payrolls were created during July. For August, the HWOL is indicating 108,651 fewer want ads from July to August. We'll see in Friday's employment situation report what the BLS has to say about that.

Photo of Mark CarterBy Mark Carter, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department

September 6, 2012 in Employment | Permalink


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