Behind the numbers for Minnesota's hot job market

A banner that says "Now Hiring"
A banner outside a post office in South St. Paul, Minn., advertises open positions with the United States Postal Service on Aug. 8.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

All across Minnesota, businesses are desperate for workers. “We’re hiring” signs seem to be posted in every storefront. Companies are flying in workers from places like Puerto Rico, paying big signing bonuses, and getting into wage wars in a desperate attempt to fill open positions.

According to the Washington Post, a job scooping ice cream in Mankato is paying well above minimum wage. 

Meanwhile, in a report for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, David Montgomery, a data journalist who now works for the bank, digs behind the unemployment numbers to take a look at Americans who aren't working.

The following is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity. Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.

We should probably begin by asking this question: Who is working right now?

Well in Minnesota, the answer is a lot of people. Minnesota has some of the highest employment rates in the country, in the vicinity of 80 percent of all prime-age adults working. And that's a technical term, basically that means people who are 25 to 54 [years old]. Economists like to use that number, because it sort of controls for population dynamics, it rules out younger people who may be more likely to be in school, and older people who may be more likely to be retired early.

So this report you wrote says about 25 percent of Americans aged 25 to 54 don't have jobs. So what are they doing instead?

For a certain share of them, what they're doing is looking for a job or looking for the right job. About 1 in 5 people who aren't currently working are actively looking for a new job. But the rest are doing other things. In general, they're pretty happy doing other things. So these other things include going to school and retiring early. That can also include people who have health issues that prevent them from working, or who are caring for family.

Let's look at that caregiving number. What percentage of individuals who don't have a full-time job — although caregiving is, you know, a full-time job — do you have a percentage as to how many people are said to be caregivers?

Within that prime age workforce, 25 to 54, about 1 in 5 of people who aren't working say that the reason they're not working is that they're caring for family.

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And it looks like around 22 percent say that illness or disability prevents them from working. I wonder if that number will increase with people dealing with long COVID?

It's hard to say so far with these numbers. This is an annual dataset … from 2021. So it's hard to get a precise read on that. Certainly employment rates did go down from 2021 with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic disruptions. But it's too early to say what are going to be the long-term impacts on employment rates based on the COVID pandemic and long COVID.

You also looked at who is out of the workforce because of illness or disability and their education level. And the findings may surprise folks.

If you look at this whole prime age population overall, just over 1 percent of people with college degrees in this prime age group are currently not working due to health reasons. But that's over 8 percent for people who don't have a college degree.

And this doesn't mean that there's something about having that diploma that makes you less likely to get hurt. More likely it has something to do with the correlation about the type of jobs that people with and without college degrees are doing and the perhaps more physically stressful blue collar jobs out there that might be more likely to lead to health issues or to be unable to be performed by people with health issues.

When we look at this report in total, I'm wondering what should policymakers take away from it? What should business owners take away from it?

The most striking thing to me when I sat down and looked at this, just trying to get a handle on what was this big picture: Who is not working? Most people, especially in Minnesota, are working and most of the people who aren't working say they're happy not working.

But there is that key group of about one in five non-workers who are actually looking for a job or the right job. And there's also another group of people who aren't looking for a job, but who say they'd like a job if the circumstances were right.

This totals about one in three people who don't have a job who say they'd like one, whether or not they're actively trying. So there are people out there who would like to get into the workforce and the right situation. It's up to employers and job seekers to try to find the right match to get these people who say they want to work, into the workforce.