Behind seemingly positive employment data is structural weakness that in the next downturn could again leave R.I. reeling

by Eli Sherman

Sean DeLong, 42, has applied for more than 800 jobs in Rhode ­Island and southeastern ­Massachusetts since November 2015.

On average, he gets about one interview per month. But ­nothing has stuck yet.

“It’s been abysmal,” he said.

A Rhode Island College graduate, DeLong was laid off in 2015 and now works driving for Uber and Lyft – the ride-hailing companies. The work helps pay for his mortgage and support his ­family. It also gives him flexibility to be ready for the infrequent job interviews.

He’s not alone.

“There are a lot of people in similar situations, regardless of background, who are out there driving for Uber,” he said. “There’s a lot of underemployment.”

That’s in part because nearly 45 percent of all jobs added in Rhode Island since August 2009 had an annual average wage of $27,323. Regional data was not immediately available, but a 2014 report by the National Employment Law Project showed a similar trend of post-recession employment growth nationwide.

“Yes, there are jobs, but those aren’t great jobs,” said Douglas Hall, director of economic and fiscal policy at the Economic Progress Institute, a progressive-leaning think tank in Providence. “At least as important to the strength of the economy is the quality of the jobs in it.”

Employment has grown in Rhode Island since 2012, and the state’s unemployment rate in May was 4.1 percent, marking the first time it fell below the national rate since the onset of the Great Recession.

But while jobs are growing, and unemployment is falling, the overall labor force is also shrinking, as it fell 4.2 percent between 2006 and 2016. The downward trend worries economists, as it makes the overarching workforce numbers less rosy.

“When we hear that our unemployment rate is low, it’s largely for the wrong reasons,” said Leonard Lardaro, an economist at the University of Rhode Island, of the shrinking labor force.

Add in the growth of low-wage jobs and it raises broader questions about how well Rhode Island is positioned for the next economic downturn.

“We’re not ready,” Lardaro said pointedly.