Job Openings And Labor Turnover: Clues To The Business Cycle

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by: Doug Short

By Jill Mislinski

The latest JOLTS report (Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary), with data through May, is now available. From the press release:

Errors in JOLTS federal government estimates
BLS identified errors in the JOLTS federal government hires, total separations, and layoffs and discharges estimates from January 2011 forward. These data have been suppressed from the BLS database and this news release.

The first chart below shows four of the headline components of the overall series, which the BLS began tracking in December 2000. The time frame is quite limited compared to the main BLS data series in the monthly employment report, many of which go back to 1948, and the enormously popular Nonfarm Employment (PAYEMS) series goes back to 1939. Nevertheless, there are some clear JOLTS correlations with the most recent business cycle trends.

The chart below shows the monthly data points four of the JOLTS series. They are quite volatile, hence the inclusion of six-month moving averages to help identify the trends. For the last two and a half years, the moving average for openings has been above the hires levels, as seen in the chart below.

For comparison, here is the monthly BLS Employment Situation Summary charted with JOLTS data:

A Population-Adjusted Perspective on JOLTS

The chart above is based on the actual numbers in the JOLTS report. A better way to view the numbers is as a percent of Nonfarm Employment, which essentially gives us a population-adjusted version of the data. Here is that adjustment for four of the JOLTS series. Note that the vertical axis for each is optimized for the high-low range, to facilitate an understanding of the individual trends.

Where Are We Now in the Business Cycle?

Based on the six-month moving averages, we can see that:

  • The Openings are at its record high since the start of the series in December of 2000, and the moving average has been above the hires levels for the last three-plus years.
  • Hires are above their pre-recession peak.
  • Quits are above their levels of last two recessions and at an all-time high.
  • The Layoffs and Discharges series is near its all-time low.

The Trend in Quits

To reiterate a previous point: increases in Quits suggest employment flexibility. Quits tend to be inversely correlated with Layoffs & Discharges, which are associated with business cycle weakness. Following the last recession, Quits began increasing in 2010, and the rate accelerated in 2013. The trend leveled out in 2015, but then resumed the upward trend later in the year and continues through 2017. Layoffs & Discharges saw a downtick in the later months of 2016, leveled out in the early months of 2017, with an uptick later in the year.

It would, of course, be excellent if we had historical JOLTS data stretching back through several business cycles. But alas, we do not.

The JOLTS reports will be interesting to watch in the months ahead. But the volatility of the data, which is also subject to revisions, encourages caution in taking the data for any given month very seriously.

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