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What are "ghost jobs"?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The official unemployment rate here in the U.S. has been at historic lows for a while now, but there are still stories of job seekers who are not hearing back from potential employers. Our colleagues over at The Indicator, Darian Woods and Wailin Wong, explain why these so-called ghost jobs seem to be on the rise.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: The jobs market is in a mysterious place right now. Ivan Fernandez is a writer in LA, and about a year ago, he was looking for a writing or admin job, but he couldn't tell if any of them were real.

IVAN FERNANDEZ: It's almost like swinging at a pinata blindfolded. It's like, what am I going to hit, if anything?

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: Part of the trouble was ghost jobs. And when we talk about ghost jobs, there's a few things that could be going on here. First is outright scams, where job listings are purely there as bait to get your contact details or even ask applicants for money. Then there is ghosting, where an employer or a recruiter doesn't get back to you after you've gone in for an interview.

WOODS: Ghosting by employers appears to be on the rise. Lisa Simon is the chief economist of Revelio Labs, which is a jobs analytics firm.

WONG: But what Lisa calls ghost jobs is this other thing. It's job ads where the employer is real, but they might never fill the position.

LISA SIMON: Back in 2018, we sort of saw that 1 in 5 job postings wouldn't result in a hire, and now it's almost half. So 1 in 2 job postings don't result in a hire.

WONG: Understanding ghost jobs is really important because we don't want a false picture of how the economy is doing. That could hurt everybody. Right now the Federal Reserve is keeping interest rates high to control inflation, but they're also mindful of not wanting to totally crash the jobs market as they do that. And one stat that's been cited as a sign of the job market's resilience is the number of job listings for every unemployed person.

WOODS: And the latest numbers are that there are about one and a quarter job openings for every unemployed person - so plenty of jobs for everybody, in theory. But can we really trust these numbers?

WONG: To learn more, we called up Allison Giddens. She co-owns a company called Win-Tech. It makes parts for planes and the military. Allison says it's hard to find the highly skilled workers she needs.

ALLISON GIDDENS: You have to be able to spatially see it in your head. You have to be able to kind of visually turn it in your mind's eye.

WOODS: And so Allison keeps job listings online year-round just in case one of these highly skilled masters drops by.

WONG: Also, Allison says that the job listing companies give her the incentive to put up more job listings than are immediately required. Like, she says ZipRecruiter charged her $400 a month for three job listings. So even if there was only one urgent hire...

GIDDENS: Well, I've already got the $400 a month. And I'm, you know, not going to let the job ad just sit empty - might as well have it posted.

WONG: And on the question of what this means for how much we can trust the wider macro indicators of job openings, we wrote to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And an economist there replied that the way these surveys work is employers are repeatedly surveyed for three years and that the employer does need to be actively recruiting. And then the BLS checks if there are any major discrepancies between what the businesses write in the survey and what they actually do. All that said, the BLS doesn't have any data specifically related to ghost jobs.

WOODS: Darian Woods.

WONG: Wailin Wong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANOS GUTIERREZ'S "IT'S ALL IN YOUR MIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Darian Woods
Darian Woods is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.
Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.