Does Virginia's Unemployment Rate Paint the Whole Picture?

Aug 10, 2017

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie says the state's unemployment rate is misleading.
Credit AP Photo / Steve Helber

Virginia’s unemployment is at its lowest level since the recession. But is that a sign of strength for the economy? Or does it indicate something else is going on? Michael Pope hit the road to find out.

George Combs gets behind the wheel of his 2001 Honda Civic and sets out for his part-time job, the one he recently landed after a long and difficult period of unemployment.

“Well, the better part of two years. I had quite a number of interviews and things. But nothing quite worked out.”

Nothing quite worked out. Until he landed a part-time job. Now he works about three or four days a week.

“Would you consider yourself under-employed?”

“Yes. I would like to be working more. I got kinda spoiled with my first career being a librarian. I loved it so much. I really want a job that I find enjoyable and where I learn from the people who I’m working with.”

Combs and thousands of people like him are at the center of a political debate in Virginia. During the first gubernatorial debate, Republican candidate for governor Ed Gillespie acknowledged that Virginia’s unemployment rate is at 3.7%, the lowest since the recession. But, he says, the labor-force participation rate is at a 10-year low. So that unemployment number isn’t telling the whole story.

“Because it’s not capturing a lot of part-time workers who want to work full time. It’s capturing a lot of people who are working in lower wage jobs than they want to be working in, not commensurate with their degrees.”

“Ed Gillespie is talking about you, isn’t he?

“To a certain extent, yeah. As loathe as I am to agree with Ed Gillespie. Yes I think he is. However, I would say this all came up in the election last year when there were all sorts of, from the right, criticizing the last administration how they came up with the numbers and things. So it’s kind of a systemic problem that I think has always been there.”

Democrat Ralph Northam says Gillespie is trash talking Virginia’s economy.

“What he’s really doing is cherry picking, and he’s rooting — he’s cheering against the economy in the Commonwealth of Virginia that we’ve worked very hard on to build a new Virginia economy.”

Will Gillespie’s attack on the unemployment rate work?

"Gillespie needs to try to turn what is right now a slight positive for Northam into at least a neutral or a negative, and part of the way to do that is to say the number that you’re seeing isn’t real."

That’s Quentin Kidd at Christopher Newport University.

"I don’t think this argument really gets Ed Gillespie anywhere on the campaign trail because what matters is how people feel. If people feel that there are opportunities out there for them if they feel positive about the future that’s what really matters.”

Hamilton Lombard at the University of Virginia says the story of labor force participation is a tale of two Virginias.

"So if you go into the larger metro areas in Virginia, particularly suburban counties in Northern Virginia, Richmond, Hampton Roads, there’s only a small share of the working age population that isn’t working.”

A small share, like maybe 15%. But ...

“When you go out into predominantly rural areas such as in Southside or Southwest, the share of the working age population that isn’t working can be over a third or sometimes half of the working age population isn’t working.”

Back on the road again with George Combs, he’s pulling into the parking lot of his part-time job — a job that’s helping him make ends meet, for the most part, at least for now.

“A lot of folks I know are working freelance jobs kind of plying their trade where they can when they can. It’s a different world. It’s not the same world as our parents.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association