The running numbers on the worst job crisis since the Great Depression have become the new national boxscore.
Even those with cursory interest in the economy are aware the national unemployment rate stood near or past 10 percent nationally for most of 2009.
Still others can reel off the current numbers for Missouri (9.6 percent) and Illinois (11 percent) with the authority of a seasoned economist.
Now, for the first time, policy-makers have a tool to regularly measure the depth of that economic pain at the state and regional level — a quarterly snapshot assessing underemployment and other comprehensive unemployment data on a state-by-state basis.
Since 1994, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has packaged the inclusive national jobs data into its monthly unemployment report. But on a state and local level, such statistics were available only once a year.
A bureau official said the new schedule, two years in development, fills a recession-ravaged public’s need for more information about the state of the economy and job market. And the picture isn’t very pretty.
When the bureau adds workers overqualified for their current positions (underemployed), employees involuntarily subjected to reduced hours and individuals no longer looking for a job to the equation, the national barometer for jobs misery soars to 17 percent.
"It’s not so interesting when the economy is humming along," said Tom Krolik, an analyst with the agency’s local area unemployment statistics division.
The new data provide a steady and reliable estimate of just how deeply the recession has cut into two states in which 773,000
(Illinois) and 137,500 (Missouri) displaced workers are currently drawing unemployment:
— More than 400,000 underemployed in Illinois and nearly 200,000 working below grade level in Missouri.
— Upwards of 350,000 now employed part time involuntarily in Illinois and an additional 153,000 struggling in part-time positions in Missouri.
— At least 30,000 "discouraged workers" (people who have stopped looking for jobs) in Illinois and an additional 10,000 in Missouri.
The state numbers are culled from the same surveys and databases the bureau uses to compile its monthly unemployment statistics.
"The thing that is so discouraging is that we’re not seeing much improvement," said Bonny Filandrinos, president of Staffing Solutions in Clayton, which provides temporary workers to health facilities and other area companies.
Filandrinos says she’s still waiting to see a bounce-back in demand for even temporary or part-time labor. "We’re still in trouble," she said.
Six Flags St. Louis got a glimpse of where the economy still stands earlier this month when 916 temporary 2009 employees attended a party to welcome back temporary workers returning for another season.
By the time Six Flags ends its 2010 recruitment drive — a process that begins with a Feb. 6 job fair — human resources director Colleen Welch estimates about half of the park’s employees will be returnees.
On average, she said, Six Flags sees about 40 percent of its workers return the following season.
Unlike days when the park’s employees swelled in the summer with high school and college students, many of the returnees are older, experienced workers driven to seasonal employment by a bum economy.
Bob Graf, 64, managed to carve out a decent living since abandoning the teaching profession 30 years ago for a second career as a freight broker.
As the middleman that small and mid-sized manufacturers retain to negotiate shipping contracts with trucking firms, Graf considers himself somewhat of an "amateur" economist.
When production slowed and orders started to drop in 2007, Graf figured the economy was going down the tubes.
He figured right.
Last year, the recession hit Graf where it hurts.
With his commissions in the tank, Graf took a second job as a seasonal security guard at Six Flags to help make ends meet. Seeing little improvement in the shipping business, he will be back this summer, supplementing the diminished income from his year-round position.
"I still make money, but it’s not what it was," said Graf, of south St. Louis County.
Still, there are signs of improvement that should eventually show up in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ expanded database.
Jon Lauer, president of Professional Irrigation Systems in Wentzville, is planning to fill four to six positions lost to layoffs last year.
With commercial and residential construction still in decline, Lauer has changed the focus of his 10-year-old company to the servicing of existing irrigation systems as well as installing some at municipal athletic facilities. The workload, he said, is a far cry from the pre-recession days when 50- to 60-hour weeks were common.
For the past year and into the foreseeable future, he stressed, overtime is out of the question.
"We’re still in the hanging-in-there stage," he said.
As is Rob Huddleston, 41, of Florissant, who has been out of work since losing his welding job in August.
After dipping his toe in a market that seeks to pay experienced welders about two-thirds of what he earned last year, Huddleston decided to accept $5,000 in Workforce Investment Act funding to improve his skills in a retraining program.
The tight job market, he said, "does get discouraging sometimes."
But not so much that Huddleston will show up in the bureau’s category of workers who have put the brakes on the job search.
"I don’t look at giving up as an option," he said. "I know people get discouraged, but if you quit there is nowhere to go but further down."