THE federal government released its latest unemployment figures last Friday. But behind the slight drop in joblessness reflected in the official statistics is a truer picture -- a scarier picture -- of the nation's employment crisis.
Crowded into this picture are the millions of Americans (there are no precise totals) who have become discouraged and stopped looking for work, who are working part time but would like to work full time, who are working at jobs beneath their skill level, who are working at temporary jobs, who have set up some form of self-employment because they can't find other work, who are living on severance and savings and don't know what the future holds, who have retired prematurely, and on and on.
These are all people who would like to be gainfully employed but have been unable to land a good job.
Thomas J. Plewes, associate commissioner at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, explained that three "tests" must be passed before someone is officially considered unemployed: The person must be out of work, must be available for work and must have actively sought a job at some point in the last four weeks. There were 8.9 million people in this category in June, the latest month for which figures were available.
In addition, according to Mr. Plewes, the government is aware of 1.2 million discouraged workers. Having thrown in the towel, they are not counted among the officially unemployed.
There are also 6.3 million partially employed people -- part-timers who would like to be full-timers. "That," said Mr. Plewes, "is a very large number at this stage of a recovery."
Another "very large" group comprises individuals working in jobs for which they are overqualified. This is a category that cannot be accurately measured. "It's very, very subjective," said Mr. Plewes.
In this group are many college graduates and professionals who once felt secure in their work. They are now doing all sorts of things -- painting houses, delivering pizzas, driving cabs -- to make ends meet.
Where jobs are available, there is a crush of applicants. M-G-M officials expect more than 100,000 applications for the 8,000 jobs at their new Grand Hotel and Theme Park in Las Vegas. Thousands of job seekers turned up in 100-degree heat last week just to submit resumes.
The structure of employment in the U.S. is changing radically and workers are at a clear disadvantage. Millions of good jobs have vanished. Millions of workers are fearful and many are desperate. Job security is becoming a thing of the past. Workers in good jobs worry that they will not be in them for long.
The Harvard economist James Medoff, who did a study of "The New Unemployment," said, "No matter where you look, labor is hurting a great deal." He described the demand for workers as "weak."
In his paper Professor Medoff said: "Today's unemployment rate is roughly the same as it was at various points since 1976. However, until very recently, job availability, as measured by help wanted advertising, was much greater than it is today. The unemployment rate by itself cannot describe the ultimate vulnerability of American workers."
Not only are fewer jobs available, but the quality of the jobs has declined. Huge numbers of manufacturing jobs that provided relatively high wages and good benefits have been replaced over several years by service jobs that pay less and offer fewer or no benefits.
Now unemployed white-collar workers, jolted by the latest recession and its aftermath, are also walking down the path to the service-sector jobs.
Among the most vulnerable workers, according to Mr. Medoff, are those who are middle-aged. In a report titled "Middle-Aged and Out-of-Work," he found that middle-aged Americans "were 45 percent more likely during the 1980s to be unemployed due to permanent layoff or job loss than was true during the 1970s," and are 55 percent more likely in the 1990s than in the 1970s.
Across the board the employment outlook is grim. Consumer confidence is weak, and when the employment picture comes into focus you wonder how it could be otherwise. It will be difficult for President Clinton or anyone else to bring about a strong economic recovery without addressing the fundamental problem of employment.
Bob Herbert is a columnist for the New York Times.