New employment numbers show more Wisconsin residents work now than before the pandemic

Meanwhile, employers still have fewer jobs than two years ago

By: - March 25, 2022 6:15 am

Help Wanted sign, Madison, Wisconsin, June 1, 2021. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

Employment continued to rise in Wisconsin in February, with more people reporting they were working than two years ago, just before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, according to the state’s labor department.

Employers, however, have reported they had 71,000 fewer jobs than there were two years ago, in February 2020.

“Things are returning to somewhat normal,” said Dennis Winters, chief economist at the Department of Workforce Development (DWD), which announced the February jobs and employment numbers Thursday.

The economic sector with the largest job growth in the last 12 months was leisure and hospitality, which gained 40,500 jobs since February 2021. Employers in that sector, which includes bars, restaurants, lodging, recreation and entertainment, are back to about 97% of the jobs that existed in February 2020.

In February 2022, 3.05 million people reported that they were working in Wisconsin, according to DWD. Two years earlier, that number was just under 3 million.

The number of nonfarm wage and salary jobs in February 2022 was 2.92 million, compared with 2.99 million in February 2020.

Wisconsin added 20,000 private sector, nonfarm jobs in February 2022, and the state’s unemployment rate dipped to 2.9% from 3% in January. More than two-thirds of the state’s population — 66.4% — were working or looking for work in February, a larger share than the national labor force participation rate of 62.3%.

The jobs numbers and the employment numbers come from two different federal surveys. An employer census counts the number of jobs on the payroll of an organization. A household survey asks people whether they are employed or not. The household survey includes people who work for themselves. Self-employed people, however, are not included in the employer survey, Winters said.

Nationally, part-time work is declining and full-time work, by comparison, has increased in the last two years, Winters said, a trend that had been underway already before the pandemic.

Wage increases may be one reason for that, he said, allowing workers to drop a second, part-time job or for a household to go from two earners to one — particularly if one person leaves work to care for children at home because of the challenge in finding affordable child care.

“Nationally, there’s probably about 2 million workers that are not in the workforce at this point, because they’re taking care of kids, because of what is happening with COVID” in the child care field, Winters said.

“Wages are definitely going up, and they’re going up faster than the overall cost of business,” he added, as employers offer higher pay to draw more job applicants. 

That may also help explain why employers are reporting fewer jobs than two years ago. 

“You could be employed in two jobs and you would only be counted once as employed [on the household survey] but be counted twice in jobs [in the survey of employers],” Winters said. “So if you have shed that second part-time job, and you’re still employed … you’re only showing up once.”

As businesses resumed operation after temporary closures in the first two months of the pandemic, employers have complained of their difficulty in filling job openings. Winters said longstanding demographic trends that were already evident before COVID-19 are the main obstacle, however.

While the labor force has grown slightly in the last year, “it’s been essentially flat for 10 years,” Winters added, and as the state’s population ages, the workforce could shrink in the next decade.

The main solutions, he said, include drawing more people to the state and removing barriers that may have contributed to chronic unemployment, including transportation, housing and a lack of skills. But as the population ages, he expects employers to continue facing challenges as they seek workers.  

The result is that fewer people are available to hire, which makes it harder for employers to fill jobs “with the limited growth in the workforce we have,” he said.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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