SmartRecruiters Blog

BLS Reports Discouraged Workers, & Discouragement

On the first Friday of each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes the previous month’s unemployment numbers. Part of that monthly unemployment report includes those who are “marginally attached” to the workforce. The October ‘12 BLS employment report, which provides the data on unemployment for September ’12, showed that 2.5 million were marginally attached to the workforce. These are individuals who are not in the labor force but would like to be working and are available for work. They were not counted in the total unemployment report because they had not been actively engaged in the search for employment the previous four weeks.

A sub-category of the marginally attached is what the BLS calls “discouraged workers.” For September ‘12 this category totaled about 802,000 individuals (489,000 are men, 313,000 are women). The remaining 1.7 million individuals marginally attached to the workforce have not looked for work in the previous four weeks; for family responsibilities and/or attendance in school had impinged on their ability to look for work. Other reasons, according to Castillo (1998), include health issues, disability challenges, or issues connected to transportation. Regionally, South Carolina, Nevada, Michigan, Florida have the highest rates of discouraged workers. Colorado, Iowa, Main, Montana Oregon, and Wisconsin have the lowest rates.

So what are the reasons that fuel the discouragement of the discouraged workers? According to Castillo (1998), these men and women believe that no jobs are available for them because they are essentially unqualified. More specifically, Castillo notes, this group believes that they do not qualify because they lack the required schooling, experience, or skill-set needed to fill a particular position. Finally, this group perceives that some type of discrimination is at work in the job market that would prevent them from a fair shot at a job opening.

The BLS discouraged workers report only points to overall percentages and the primary reasons that make discouraged workers discouraged. What is not included in the report is an understanding of the word “discouraged.” I think unless we first capture a sense of the meaning of the word “encourage,” the impact of the experience of discouragement may be lost on those of us who read the monthly unemployment reports as only broadly applied percentages.

The word “courage” emerged during 12th century in French and conveyed a place of “innermost strength,” or “the heart.” The heart was that place of strength or confidence from which actions materialized. The etymology of the word “encourage” emerged in the 15th century in French and meant to “put courage in.” The word “discourage” meant to “withdraw or remove” courage. Fast forward now to what the BLS unemployment report about discouraged workers does not tell us. Discouraged workers are those who have experienced a loss of confidence and esteem. They may feel worthless, forgotten, abandoned, disillusioned, inadequate and otherwise discarded by the labor market. This loss of courage is made more insidious because it is felt in the depths of their being. They may believe that they have absolutely nothing to offer to potential employers because of what they lack (education) or who they are (racial ethnic barriers or other visible or invisible barriers that create a perception of discrimination).  This feeling which emerges from a perception strikes are the heart of their identity.

How might employers respond? Let me suggest three actions that can be taken to make positive in-roads to the discouraged worker population. First, be aware of the fact that these discouraged workers exist. Get these people on your employment radar. Understand the tremendous inner challenges facing this population. As I wrote earlier in “The Psychological Impact of Unemployment,” employers have both an opportunity and share a responsibility to connect with the unemployed and, in particular, those who have been traumatized by the experience of joblessness. This would certainly include discouraged workers.

Second, because the discouraged worker is most likely disengaged, they may be hard to locate. Discouragement tends to fuel social detachment and isolationism. Employers who are looking for new hires would be wise to ask for referrals from current employees who know of someone who would qualify as a discouraged worker. Targeting this population is a great way to draw them out of isolation and to begin a process of encouragement. Give these men and women a fair shot at open positions.

Finally, take a hard look at any visible or invisible barriers that can fuel the perception that your organization hires only certain types of individuals while leaving others out of the employment conversation. Examine your human resource hiring processes, structures, and most importantly, the actual metrics of who gets hired to determine if there is any evidence of discrimination.  Inviting the discouraged worker to the employment conversation fundamentally means first taking a hard look at the way we run our businesses and taking action to remove barriers that keep some people fenced-away from a potential life-giving and hope-restoring conversation.


professor jeffrey d. yerglerJeffrey D. Yergler, Ph.D., is professor of Management and Chair of the Undergraduate Management Department at Golden Gate University, San Francisco. He is also Principal at Integer Leadership Consulting, a firm specializing in Leadership Training and Management Consulting ( Email Jeff at [email protected].





Jeffrey D. Yergler Ph.D

Jeffrey D. Yergler, Ph.D., is professor of Management and Chair of the Undergraduate Management Department at Golden Gate University, San Francisco. He is also Principal at Integer Leadership Consulting, a firm specializing in Leadership Training and Management Consulting ( Email Jeff at [email protected].