Steady Growth Continues: Staffing and Recruiting Industry Outpaces the Economy and the Labor Market
More than six years since the end of the Great Recession, the U.S. economy has yet to fully recover. While there has been expansion, this long road to recovery has been erratic. And although the jobs lost during the 18-month recession have been regained and the unemployment rate has declined, the percentage of people participating in the labor force has dropped to the lowest level in four decades. There are nearly six million open jobs, and more than eight million people out of work—contributing to the longer than anticipated recovery cycle. Meanwhile, the staffing and recruiting industry has been growing faster than gross domestic product and overall employment at rates unlike any prior recovery. Are these trends unique to the current expansion, or has there been a fundamental change in the role of staffing and recruiting in the economy?
The Slow-Growth Economy
The Great Recession was the longest and most severe since World War II. On average, the 10 recessions from WWII until the Great Recession lasted about 10 and a half months.1 The Great Recession lasted 18 months.2
Beginning in December 2007, real gross domestic product (GDP)—the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the U.S.—declined in five of the subsequent six quarters to
mid-2009. At that point, the cumulative damage was a striking –4.3%, far exceeding the depth of the prior worst recession in the postwar era, which was a 3.6% decline in 1957.3 That recession lasted less than a year, and the U.S. economy recovered in just two quarters.4 The Great Recession lasted a year and a half and, after more than six years, GDP has yet to fully recover.
Since the beginning of the expansion in July 2009, quarterly GDP has grown at an average annualized rate of 2.2%, below the 2.8% rate of the 2002–07 expansion (see Figure 1) and well below the overall
average annual rate of 3.4% from 1930, when the U.S. Department of Commerce first began tracking GDP, to 2014.5
Economic forecasts for 2014 were bullish, with most experts believing that the pace of recovery had picked up and the economy would further strengthen in 2014. And despite an unanticipated decline of 0.9% in the first quarter of 2014,6 largely attributed to harsh winter weather, GDP rebounded in the second quarter, leaping to 4.6% and a solid 4.3% in the third quarter—only the second time economic growth had exceeded 4% since 2006. In the fourth quarter of 2014, however, the economy slowed—growing
just 2.1% and dampening expectations for 2015.7
The economy slowed further in the first quarter of 2015, due in part to a prolonged period of severe winter weather. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported first quarter annualized growth of just 0.6%.8 The deceleration in fourth quarter GDP growth for 2014 combined with the anemic first quarter of 2015 led economists to substantially lower their GDP projections for the full year.
From July 2014 through April 2015, economists surveyed monthly by the Wall Street Journal had projected annual GDP growth for 2015 ranging from 2.7% to 3.0%.9 But in May 2015, their average GDP forecasts dropped, ranging between 2.1% and 2.2% through August.10
In the September survey, Wall Street Journal economists upgraded their average annual GDP forecasts to 2.4% for 2015.11 That would put economic expansion during this recovery 1.6 percentage points below the 4.0% annual growth rate average for the six recoveries from 1960 to 2007.12
Predictions for 2016 remain muted, with the consensus for full-year GDP at 2.6%. If correct, that would be the strongest growth since the Great Recession, but still well below prior years.13 Will that forecast hold, or will the projection follow the recent pattern of downward revisions, pushing economic recovery even further out?
Shifts in the Labor Market
Along with the myriad reports of slow economic growth, the news has been filled with reports of shifts in the labor market, modest job gains, and decreasing workforce participation. As one commentator put it, “We are clearly experiencing a structural change in employment, one that is a major drag on the overall economy.”14
Unemployment: Slowly Declining
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counts a person as unemployed if he or she does not have a job, has actively looked for work in the past four weeks, and is currently available for work.15
Even the healthiest economy will have some level of unemployment. Determining the low end of sustainable unemployment within the slowly recovering economy has been challenging, and that level has also changed over time. Estimates suggest that the long-run normal level of sustainable unemployment ranges from 5% to 6%.16
As with the economy, the change in the rate of unemployment in the U.S. has slowed in recent years.
After a high of 10.0% in 2010, the unemployment rate began a downward trend, with appreciable declines in 2013. From 2013 through 2014, the unemployment rate averaged 6.8%, descending to 5.1% in August 201517—the lowest rate in seven years, but still higher than 5.0% at the start of the recession (see Figure 2).
Corresponding with the decline in the unemployment rate, the number of initial claims for unemployment benefits also dropped. In December 2013, the four-week average number of applications for unemployment benefits was 349,000.18 While the weekly number of initial claims fluctuated in subsequent months, generally there was a downward trend, sinking to 255,000 in July 2015—the lowest level in more than 40 years. Unemployment claims edged up in recent weeks to 275,000 in September 2015.19
Recipients of jobless benefits fell from 2.9 million in December 2013 to 2.4 million in December 2014, on down to 2.2 million in May 2015—the smallest number of recipients in nearly 15 years.20 The number of jobless benefit recipients edged up slightly nearing 2.3 million in September 2015.21
As the level of unemployment has shifted, so too has the “natural rate”—the level when the economy is in a state of full employment, with little or no inflation, or the minimum sustainable rate of unemployment with inflation. In 2012, Federal Reserve researchers computed a “new natural rate” of unemployment at 5.6% to 5.7%.22
Updated calculations of the natural rate of unemployment estimate that the value fell recently to around 5% and could fall to around 4.4% to 4.8% by 2020, as the U.S. population ages and more people stay in school longer, according to Chicago Fed researchers.23
The August 2015 unemployment rate is nearing the new natural rate and seems poised for further declines. Economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal in September 2015 expect the unemployment rate to decline to 5.0% by year-end, and drop further in 2016 to 4.8%.24
On the surface, a declining unemployment rate would seem to be good news. But there is a swell of speculation that the unemployment rate may be decreasing because more people are disengaging from the workforce. The question is whether the decline in unemployment will be balanced by an increase in the number of people able and willing to work, or will the close to six million available jobs continue to go unfilled—creating an additional drag on the economy?
Labor Force Participation: Decreasing
Labor force growth is an important component of overall economic growth.25
The U.S. civilian labor force—defined as the number of people working or looking for work—has experienced significant shifts in size and demographic composition, especially since World War II.
The proportion of women in the labor force rose after World War II, and peaked in 1999, but has been declining since. Growth of the population slowed in the first decade of the 21st century. And large numbers of Baby Boomers are now retiring and exiting the workforce. These have all contributed to labor force declines.
Just as greater participation by women and an increasing population helped expand the labor market previously, the reversal of these trends may now be factors dampening economic expansion and decelerating GDP growth.27
The labor force participation rate—the share of the working-age population either employed or seeking a job—peaked at 67.3% in April 2000. The participation rate has been on a downward trend since that time, dropping to 62.6% June through August 2015—the lowest level since October 197728 (see Figure 3).
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that about 1.75 percentage points of the more than 3-point decline since the beginning of the Great Recession (when the participation rate was 65.9%) is most notably attributable to the aging population and the slow growth economy in recent years29—accounting for just over half of the decrease in the labor force participation rate. Limited employment opportunities due to lack of necessary skills or training, and job seekers becoming discouraged have also contributed to the decline, according to CBO.
Even with the recent decrease in unemployment, labor force participation is projected to decline further as more Baby Boomers scale back on hours worked or retire, and greater numbers of job seekers drop out of the workforce altogether. CBO projects that the labor force participation rate will edge down to 62.0% by the end of 2019.31
Thus, it seems clear that the overarching challenge facing policy makers at all levels is not only to find the right prescriptions for growing the economy, but also to help ensure that Americans have the right education, skills, and incentives to seek and perform the jobs a 21st century economy requires. In the meantime, the shrinking pool of job seekers and the need to continue to improve efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness is challenging employers to develop and embrace new and more flexible workforce solutions.
Growth in Staffing and Recruiting
Historically, staffing employment has been a coincident economic indicator and a leading employment indicator.32 What that means is staffing employment trends coincide with economic trends (as measured by GDP) and occur in advance of overall employment trends.
In other words, as the economy grows, so does staffing employment. And as GDP slows or contracts, staffing employment decelerates or diminishes. Because overall employment trends tend to lag economic trends, and staffing employment coincides with economic trends, changes in staffing employment frequently portend changes in overall employment.
The ASA Staffing Index provides a near real-time gauge of staffing industry employment and overall economic activity. It tracks weekly trends in temporary and contract employment, with results reported nine days after the close of a workweek (see “Methodology of ASA Economic Surveys” on page 22).
The index was set at 100 when it was publicly launched June 12, 2006. Weekly percentage changes in temporary and contract employment are reflected in the index, allowing observers to easily see how staffing employment has changed over time. For example, the index troughed at 66 in midsummer 2009, indicating that staffing employment had fallen about 34% from its level in mid-June 2006. The index reached a record high of 108 in December 2014, eclipsing the previous peak of 105 in mid-October 2007 (see Figure 4).
The index reflected continued year-to-year growth in early 2015, with record highs for 19 of the first 20 weeks. While growth moderated somewhat in the second quarter, since the recovery began in July 2009, staffing employment has been growing three and a half times faster than the economy and seven times more rapidly than overall employment (see Figure 5).
Temporary and Contract Jobs: Recovered
Staffing employment in the U.S. returned to prerecession levels in 2014, rising from a low of 2.2 million jobs per week on average in 2009, up to 3.2 million in 2014, according to the quarterly ASA
Staffing Employment and Sales Survey (see Figure 6). Staffing firms hired 5.4% more temporary and contract workers on an average weekly basis in 2014 than in 2013.33
ASA began estimating temporary and contract employment through a quarterly survey of staffing firms after BLS suspended monthly measurement of jobs in the temporary help services industry in 1990. When BLS resumed measuring temporary help jobs in 2000, ASA maintained its survey. The quarterly ASA
employment survey is similar to the BLS monthly jobs survey, and the ASA Staffing Index is similar to the ASA quarterly survey. While the three surveys measure different aspects of the industry and absolute results vary, typically the data statistically correlate. (See sidebar “Methodology of ASA Economic Surveys” on page 22.)
To try to make employment metrics as measured by BLS and ASA as comparable as possible, average weekly employment data are collected for the same select weeks. It should be noted that most temporary and contract work assignments are finite and of relatively short duration, and therefore weekly employment figures do not reflect the total number of people who work for the staffing industry over the course of a month or even during a year.
To determine annual employment in the staffing industry, ASA collects data on the total number of Forms W-2 issued annually to temporary and contract employees by the staffing firms that participate
in the association’s quarterly survey. Based on those data, ASA estimates the total number of temporary and contract employees who have worked in the staffing industry for any period of time during the calendar year.
Over the course of 2014, U.S. staffing firms hired a total of 14.6 million temporary and contract employees, up 32.7% from 11.0 million in 2013—bringing annual staffing employment back to prerecession levels (see Figure 7).34
Turnover, Tenure, and Conversion
Although average weekly and annual staffing employment increased in 2014, temporary and contract employees worked substantially fewer days on average, resulting in markedly higher employee turnover.
Turnover is the rate at which incoming employees replace outgoing employees over the course of a year. It is calculated using average weekly employment and the number of annual Forms W-2. Turnover
is considerably higher in the staffing industry compared to other industries because most employees work for their staffing firms for relatively short periods.
Staffing and Recruiting Sales Increased 5.9% in 2014 to $130 Billion
Temporary and contract staffing sales totaled $115.5 billion in 2014, according to the quarterly ASA Staffing Employment and Sales Survey—an increase of 5.7% over 2013.35
Search and placement sales grew 7% in 2014, according to Staffing Industry Analysts. Applying SIA’s yearly growth estimates to the most recent (2007) U.S. Economic Census benchmark shows that search and placement sales totaled $14.1 billion in 2014.36
U.S. staffing industry sales set a new annual record at $129.6 billion in 2014—5.9% more than in 2013. Staffing industry sales comprise temporary and contract services, in addition to search and placement services, which accounted for 10.9% of total staffing and recruiting industry sales in 2014.
SIA forecasts U.S. temporary and contract staffing sales will grow 7% in 2015 and 6% in 2016; search and placement sales are expected to increase 12% and 11% in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Temporary and contract employee turnover has averaged 311% over the past five years. In 2014, staffing employee turnover rose to 359%, up from 263% in 2013 (see Figure 8).
Turnover is a function of, and inversely related to, tenure—the duration of employment with a staffing firm: the shorter the tenure, the higher the turnover and vice versa.
Temporary and contract employee tenure has gradually increased in the two decades over which ASA has been tracking it, generally adding a day or two per year, averaging 12.8 weeks (about three months) over the past five years. Tenure rose in 2012 to 13.2 weeks, and climbed even higher in 2013 to 14.3 weeks (see Figure 8).
The increase in turnover in 2014 is a reflection of lower average staffing employee tenure of 11.3 weeks—near the 11.0 week average seen between recessions (2002-2006). The shorter tenure can largely be attributed to an improving economy and more temporary and contract workers bridging to permanent jobs.
Staffing Penetration Rate: Peaking?
Temporary help services accounted for one in 10 job losses during the Great Recession, and, not surprisingly, have been responsible for one in 10 net nonfarm employment gains from the end of the recession to August 2015.37 This type of cyclical increase is consistent with the recuperation of jobs in a recovering economy.
The staffing industry’s longstanding labor force penetration rate peak was 2.03% of nonfarm employment in April 2000 (see Figure 9)—or approximately 2.7 million temporary help workers, according to BLS. The penetration rate dropped to 1.64% in December 2001 at the end of that year’s recession, then rose to 1.95% in November 2005, near the apex of the prior economic expansion.
During the Great Recession, temporary and contract employment shrank by 30%—nearly a million jobs—and the penetration rate sank to 1.34% June through August 2009, as the economy began its
recovery. In the six years since, staffing employment has continuously increased, faster than overall nonfarm employment, reaching 2.9 million temporary help workers and a new record penetration rate of 2.05% in June 2015 (see Figure 9).
Will Staffing Growth Continue?
After six years on the road to recovery, the economy is still healing from the Great Recession. Although lost jobs have been regained, there are more people unemployed than there are jobs, and fewer people are looking for work.
There is much speculation about what is causing slower economic growth and the reasons behind more prevalent disengagement from the workforce. This gives rise to the question: Is this a “new normal”?
Staffing employment trends have historically coincided with economic growth, and suggested that solid growth in overall employment would soon follow; instead, during this recovery, there have been
erratic shifts in economic growth and weak overall employment growth.
At the same time, the staffing and recruiting industry grew two and a half times faster than the economy in 2014 (5.9% versus 2.4%, respectively). The industry is on track to grow three times
faster than the economy in 2015.
With GDP a paltry 1.5% in 2013 and mediocre 2.4% in 2014,38 businesses seem to be adjusting their employment strategies to better weather the economic volatility. In addition to directly hiring permanent employees, companies are increasingly turning to staffing services to augment their workforces and enhance their flexibility and agility in accord with the ebb and flow of the economy.
“Businesses are searching for and finding the right mix of [temporary] and permanent workers to drive their businesses forward,” said Steve Cooper, chief executive office of TrueBlue.39
These trends suggest that a fundamental, or secular, shift is helping to drive demand. And, at least until the next economic downturn occurs, the staffing and recruiting industry is forecasted to continue growing faster than the economy and overall employment—creating an abundance of temporary, contract, and permanent employment opportunities for job seekers.
- Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, “The Recession and Recovery in Perspective,” https://minneapolisfed.org/publications/special-studies/rip/recession-in-perspective, July 22, 2015.
- National Bureau of Economic Research, Business Cycle Dating Committee, announcement of June 2009 as the end of the recession that began in December 2007, Sept. 20, 2010.
- Ibid 1.
- National Bureau of Economic Research, “U.S. Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions,” www.nber.org/cycles.html, July 22, 2015.
- US. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Real Gross Domestic Product [A191RL1A225NBEA], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/A191RL1A225NBEA/, Aug. 7, 2015.
- U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis news release, “Gross Domestic Product: Second Quarter 2015 (Second Estimate),” Aug. 27, 2015.
- Ibid 6.
- Economic Forecasting Survey: July 2015, Wall Street Journal, wsj.com, July 16, 2015.
- Economic Forecasting Survey: August 2015, Wall Street Journal, wsj.com, Aug. 13, 2015.
- Economic Forecasting Survey: September 2015, Wall Street Journal, wsj.com, Sept. 11, 2015.
- Jason Furman, Prepared Remarks for Economic Policy Conference, “Questions and Answers: The Economic Recovery and the Path Forward,” National Association for Business Economics, March 10, 2015.
- Ben Leubsdorf and Jeffrey Sparshott, “Most Private Economist Think Fed Will Keep Interest Rates Near Zero,” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 11, 2015.
- Doug Short, “Numbers Needed for the Prime U.S. Workforce to Recover,” Structural Changes in U.S. Employment blog on econintersect.com, July 23, 2015.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “How the Government Measures Unemployment,” Current Population Survey Technical Documentation, June 2014.
- Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System FAQs, “What Is the Lowest Level of Unemployment That the U.S. Economy Can Sustain?” Aug. 2, 2015.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Civilian Unemployment Rate [UNRATE], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/UNRATE/, Sept. 14, 2015.
- U.S. Employment and Training Administration, 4-Week Moving Average of Initial Claims [IC4WSA], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/IC4WSA/, Sept. 14, 2015.
- U.S. Employment and Training Administration, Initial Claims [ICSA], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/ICSA/, Sept. 14, 2015.
- U.S. Department of Labor, Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims data, retrieved from www.oui.doleta.gov/unemploy/claims.asp, Sept. 14, 2015.
- U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration news release, “Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims,” Sept. 10, 2015.
- Murat Tasci and Saeed Zaman, “Unemployment After the Recession: A New Natural Rate?” Cleveland Federal Reserve, Jan. 8, 2012.
- Daniel Aaronson, Luojia Hu, Arian Seifoddini, and Daniel G. Sullivan, “Changing Labor Force Composition and the Natural Rate of Unemployment,” Chicago Fed Letter, Number 338, 2015.
- Ibid 11.
- Mitra Toossi, “Labor Force Projections to 2022: The Labor Force Participation Rate Continues to Fall,” Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Department of Labor, December 2013.
- Ibid 25.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate [CIVPART], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/CIVPART/, Sept. 14, 2015.
- Congressional Budget Office, “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2015 to 2025,” June 2015.
- Ibid 29.
- Steven P. Berchem, “Staffing Jobs as Economic Employment Indicators,” American Staffing Association, June 2009.
- American Staffing Association, Quarterly ASA Staffing Employment and Sales Survey, public data available online at americanstaffing.net; click on Research & Data.
- Ibid 33.
- Staffing Industry Analysts, “U.S. Staffing Industry Forecast, September 2015 Update,” Sept. 15, 2015.
- U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment, Hours, and Earnings From the Current Employment Statistics Survey (National),” Web Site Public Data Query, Series ID: CES0000000001 and Series ID: CES6056132001, Sept. 4, 2015.
- Ibid 6.
- Transcript of TrueBlue Inc. Second Quarter 2015 Earnings Conference Call, 9:00 p.m., July 22, 2015.