The Cleveland area’s unemployment rate has sometimes been lower than that of Ohio and the U.S., and the racial unemployment gap has narrowed.

Signal Cleveland will periodically touch base with economic experts to get their take on issues facing Greater Cleveland’s economy. We asked Sining Wang, an assistant professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management, how well Greater Cleveland and Ohio are bouncing back from the pandemic’s economic toll. 

As Greater Cleveland continues to recover from job losses due to the pandemic, a new pattern may be emerging. 

The metro area’s numbers have often been better than Ohio’s and sometimes even those of the United States, according to Wang’s analysis of federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. 

“It is a very positive sign for us, indicating that we are doing something right,” he said.

If the pattern holds, it will be a departure from what happened the last time the U.S. experienced massive job loss. After the Great Recession, which ran from December 2007 to June 2009, both Greater Cleveland’s and Ohio’s recoveries trailed those of the U.S. During good times and bad, Greater Cleveland generally has had a higher unemployment rate than Ohio and the U.S.

For this article, Greater Cleveland represents what the federal government refers to as the Cleveland-Elyria Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). The metro area, which has more than 2 million residents, includes Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain and Medina counties.

Over time, what we can observe is that the Cleveland area is actually catching up and doing a lot better than before.

Sining Wang, assistant professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management

Below are some of Wang’s findings, which are based on the latest available government data. This usually means jobs data for January 2023. 

Greater Cleveland’s unemployment rate has often been lower than Ohio’s since the fall of 2022.

Greater Cleveland’s unemployment rate steadily fell last year from July through December, Wang found. 

“It is no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted job growth across the country,” he said. “The peak of the job loss for Greater Cleveland, Ohio and the U.S. was in April 2020.”

Sining Wang is an assistant professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. Credit: CWRU

Since then, the metro area has regained the net of lost jobs. This means that some sectors still may not have fully recovered, but overall the metro is back to where it was before the pandemic, Wang said. 

He said the information sector, which includes information technology and media jobs, led the growth. The leisure and hospitality sector, which was hard-hit by the pandemic, was next. Third was education and health services, which BLS combines as one group. Fourth was manufacturing, which saw growth as the demand for domestic-made goods increased due to pandemic shortages. 

“Over time, what we can observe is that the Cleveland area is actually catching up and doing a lot better than before,” Wang said of the metro’s performance in the second half of 2022. “By September, the unemployment rate in Cleveland is the same as Ohio.”

Greater Cleveland’s unemployment rate was lower than Ohio’s from October through December. The metro area’s jobless rate was lower than the nation’s in November and December.

Greater Cleveland saw a spike in the unemployment rate in January, which made its rate higher than Ohio’s and that of the U.S. The metro area went from a 3.4% jobless rate in December to 4.2% in January. Ohio’s rate was 4% in January, and the U.S. was at 3.4%. Wang said only the coming months would reveal whether January was an aberration or if Greater Cleveland is returning to its old pattern of trailing Ohio and the U.S.

Racial unemployment gap narrowing: Pandemic vs. Great Recession  

Even in the best of times, the Black unemployment rate is usually twice that of the white jobless rate. Systemic racism, types of jobs held and industries in which workers are employed contribute to the gap, experts say. Periods of mass high unemployment, such as the pandemic and the Great Recession, offer an opportunity to explore this long-standing racial unemployment gap.

“As long as we are having a shock on the labor market, it has always been that it will have a disproportionate impact on people of color,” Wang said.

He looked at trends in the racial unemployment gap during the pandemic and the Great Recession using data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. 

In June 2009, which was the peak of unemployment during the Great Recession, the Black unemployment rate in Greater Cleveland was 15.3%. The unemployment rate for white workers was 8.8%. The racial gap was 6.5%, which was similar to the U.S.

In April 2020, the unemployment rate was 16.4% for Black workers and 13.8 percent for white workers. The gap was 2.6%, which was similar to the U.S. 

“I’m not saying, by any means, that the gap has been closed,” Wang said. “But in comparison to the Great Recession, the situation for minority groups is improving. Even though they continue to be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, the severity of the impact is not as severe as during the Great Recession. While they’re still facing significant challenges, the overall situation is showing a sign of improvement.” 

More jobs than unemployed workers

Government data suggest that it is still a good labor market for job seekers. Wang analyzed BLS data that looks at the ratio of unemployed workers per job opening. The higher the ratio, the tighter the labor market. A tight labor market means job openings are scarce relative to the number of unemployed workers.

“The ratio can be used as a gauge of overall economic health and can also be used to identify potential labor shortages or surpluses in specific industries or regions,” Wang said.

The ratio of unemployed workers per job opening has fallen significantly since 2020, when the pandemic began. In 2022, the ratio was at its lowest level since 2012. This holds true for Ohio as well as the U.S. For example, there were more than two unemployed workers per job opening in Ohio in 2020. By 2022, there was less than one unemployed worker per job opening. 

Graphics by April Urban

Economics Reporter (she/her)
Olivera, an award-winning journalist, covered labor, employment and workforce issues for several years at The Plain Dealer. She broke the story in 2013 of a food drive held for Walmart workers who made too little to afford Thanksgiving dinner. Olivera has received state and national awards for her coverage, including those from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW). She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Olivera believes the sweet spot of high-impact journalism is combining strong storytelling with data analysis.

Director, Research + Impact (she/her)
April has a passion for weaving together data and community voices. Her career highlights include research into the rental-housing market in Cleveland to inform policy change and program development and co-founding Data Days Cleveland to help amplify the value of data.