The U.S. unemployment rate recently hit 3.6 percent—the lowest in half a century. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for those in the “computer and mathematical occupations” (one of the categories used by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to trace jobs in tech) stands at 2.4 percent.
That 2.4 percent isn’t historically low for tech, but much better than ten years ago, when it fluttered around 5.6 percent in the wake of the Great Recession. In fact, in April 2018, the unemployment rate stood at 1.7 percent, so even by the standards of the “red hot” tech moment, things are pretty good.
Meanwhile, the number of employees involved in sub-industries such as computer systems design and related services has climbed incrementally over the past year, although many of these jobs fluctuate seasonally. For example, contractors may find their contracts expiring at the end of a calendar or fiscal year, sparking fluctuations in tech-industry unemployment.
But the “official” unemployment rate isn’t a nuanced view of the country’s economic health. For example, the overall labor-force participation rate dipped month-over-month, from 63 percent to 62.8 percent, suggesting that more people aren’t reporting that they’re unemployed and looking for work.
“The drop in the unemployment rate was encouraging, but it was for bad reasons,” Michelle Meyer, head of United States economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, told The New York Times.
Indeed, despite a low unemployment rate, the tech industry regularly wrestles with its own share of issues related to pay, benefits, and employment. For instance, companies such as Google and Facebook are using ever-larger numbers of contractors—not only for things like sales or facilities management, but also coding and QA. (In 2017, the University of California—Santa Cruz estimated some 39,000 contractors employed by tech firms in California’s San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.)
Those contractors, in turn, don’t have the same benefits as “regular” employees, and the pay is often lower. But from a corporate perspective, hiring massive amounts of contractors comes with several cost-savings benefits, such as not having to pay out 401(k) matching.
Within tech, workers are also concerned that firms will use the H-1B visa to hire workers from overseas, rather than sourcing labor from within the country. Although the Trump administration has taken some steps (via U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) to restrict the use of H-1B, it’s still a contentious issue for many in the industry.
Last (but certainly not least), there’s the unnerving prospect of automation taking over a number of technology jobs, including programming. Analyst firm Forrester predicted, for instance, that automation could kill 10 percent of U.S. jobs in 2019, while creating the equivalent of 3 percent. Analytics, chatbots, and robotics may impact customer-service, warehouse, and a variety of other positions.
In other words, the low unemployment is a good thing. Truly! But when it comes to staying gainfully employed, are a lot of things that could challenge tech pros going forward.