Eeny, meeny, miny, moe ... Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg
 Eeny, meeny, miny, moe ... Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Investors, business executives and policy makers hope to find answers to all sorts of questions in monthly economic statistics. But for the general public, one query reigns supreme: How hard is it to get (and keep) a job?

Traditional measures look at the ratio of openings to people looking for work, or how long people who lose their jobs stay unemployed. Another approach is to flip the question: How hard is it to fill a job vacancy? How long does it take, and how hard must employers work, to attract a new employee? When jobs are hard to come by, each slot has more applicants and tends not to stay open as long.

Two new indices take this approach. One measures how long jobs go unfilled, the other how much effort employers put into recruiting (including how generous compensation packages are).

On the whole, they offer good news.

Vacancies are taking about as long to fill today as they were before the crash, according to the new Dice-DFH Vacancy Duration Measure, which applies techniques developed by the economists Steven J. Davis, R. Jason Faberman and John Haltiwanger to data from the monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I think of the high vacancy duration -- especially in some sectors like manufacturing and construction -- as an indication that at least in certain sectors the labor market’s actually fairly tight and is no longer in the same kind of doldrums,” said Davis, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The figures for wholesale and retail trade and for leisure and hospitality are also up significantly.

Recruiting intensity, by contrast, has risen from its 2009 nadir but is still nowhere near pre-crash levels. (Sponsored by Dice Holdings Inc., which runs specialized career websites as well as the popular tech site Slashdot, the indices will be released monthly, within a day of the JOLTS data, with a dedicated site coming this summer.)

The employment picture is confusing, Davis acknowledged, describing the new indices as simply, “two more ways to put the hand on the elephant and get an overall sense of what the status of the labor market is.”

The new figures imply good news for most job seekers, but underscore a worrisome long-term trend. Jobs are staying vacant for longer and longer periods even as unemployment is still high and labor-force participation is down. Employers aren’t willing to fill their job slots with the long-term unemployed. Real or perceived, the mismatch between jobs and job seekers is so large that they’d rather hire no one at all.

To contact the writer of this article: Virginia Postrel at vp@vpostrel.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.