Raleigh, N.C. — As bleak as North Carolina's official 9.7 percent unemployment rate is, it doesn't completely reflect the number of people struggling to make ends meet and the fragile condition of the state economy, according to experts.
The traditional state and national unemployment numbers are based on household surveys and include only those who are out of work and actively seeking a new job.
Many economists say a more accurate picture can be seen in what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calls the U-6 number. That includes people so frustrated they gave up an active job search, those scraping by on part-time work because they can't find full-time employment and those in the midst of training for a career change.
"I think it's a much better depiction of our economic health, which is really dire, not only in North Carolina, but across the country," said Jason Jolley, senior research director at the Center For Competitive Economies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Using U-6 figures, North Carolina's unemployment rate would be 17.5 percent – the ninth highest in the U.S. The national jobless figure would be 16.5 percent instead of 9.1 percent.
"It's a little disturbing that nobody knows about the real number," said Cindy Voorhees, among the thousands of out-of-work North Carolinians hidden in the official unemployment rate.
Voorhees lost her graphic design job and exhausted 99 weeks of unemployment benefits while looking for work. She now is taking classes at Wake Technical Community College to get retrained for a job in the biopharmaceutical industry.
"I want to do something important – give back," she said. "When you're not a part of (the workforce), you miss it and you feel like you're not contributing."
Jolley said job creation is at the core of the problem. North Carolina lost about 300,000 jobs during the recession, while tens of thousands of people moved to the state looking for work.
"You're looking at about 80,000 jobs that we need to create each year for the next 10 years to make up for what was lost in the great recession and to keep up with population change," he said.
Despite a slew of job announcements in recent months from new and expanding companies, the state had only 15,168 more people with full-time jobs in May compared with a year earlier.
"That collective conscience we have to create jobs just isn't what it used to be. We're scared," said Jim Kleckley, an economist with East Carolina University. "What we're seeing now is really the structural kind (of unemployment) where the jobs aren't there for the people's training."
Voorhees said that is why she's switching careers so that she will have the training for an industry that is expected to grow in the future.