Official unemployment rate: The share of the labor force that is unemployed. The monthly average over the past 12 months has been below 4 percent, a historically low figure.
Labor force participation rate: The percentage of the population 16 years and older that is either working or actively seeking work. The figure is important because it represents how many more workers are available to produce additional goods and services. It also reflects the health of the economy. When people in their prime working years — mid-20s through mid-50s — are out of the labor force, it suggests that they don’t see opportunities. This rate has still not returned to its pre-recession levels.
Employment-population ratio: The percentage of the population 16 years and older that is working. This figure is a useful measure because it takes into account both the labor force participation rate and unemployment, and is easily compared over time.
How are the data collected?
The Household Survey
Collected by the Census Bureau since 1942, this survey enables the government to estimate the number of people who are employed and calculate the unemployment rate. It is based on the Current Population Survey, conducted each month among 60,000 households, or about 110,000 individuals from around the country.
Here’s a question that might be asked:
Some people work part time because they cannot find full-time work or because business is poor. Others work part time because of family obligations or other personal reasons. What is your main reason for working part time?
The Establishment Survey
This is based on data gathered each month from 146,000 private business and government agencies covering about 623,000 work sites. Called the Current Employment Statistics program, it is intended to measure changes in jobs created and lost over time.
Conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it focuses solely on jobs, rather than on individuals. Thus, a single person working two jobs would be counted once by the household survey (one individual is employed) and twice by the payroll survey (two jobs exist).
Which survey provides the better data?
The survey of employers, started in a bare-bones form more than a century ago, is considered a more reliable measure than the household survey, in part because the sample is much larger. But it does not pick up all the types of jobs (the self-employed, unpaid family workers, domestic help and agricultural workers) or answer questions about workers’ race, ethnicity, age and educational level. The household survey helps fill in those gaps.