More than 15 million unemployed. Seventeen percent are either unemployed, underemployed, or have given up. Nearly half the unemployed have been jobless for more than six months.


But here's what's interesting:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, author's calculations.

There are more job openings now than at any time since August 2008 -- before the financial crisis took off, and a time when the unemployment rate was a mere 6.1%. There are actually about the same number of job openings now as there were in late 2003, when the unemployment rate was 5.7%.  

What gives?

There are three big factors keeping the unemployment rate high even as job openings return.

The first is population growth. The job market needs to add about 120,000 jobs every month just to keep up with new job entrants. So even though there are about the same number of job openings now as there were in 2003, today's population is larger, so more jobseekers are fighting over the same number of openings. The good news, as Greg Ip explains in his book The Little Book of Economics, is that slowing population growth and a deceleration of women entering the workforce will mean that breakeven number will fall to about 80,000 per month in the coming decade.

Second is labor mobility, or being able to move to where the jobs are. With millions of homeowners underwater on their mortgages, many of the most desperate jobseekers are essentially tied down. Looking at the most recent Census Bureau data shows total mobility fell by more than one-third from 2005-2009. With housing taking its biggest tumble since the Great Depression, this isn't a factor the economy is used to dealing with.

The third problem is skills mismatch, or the idea that the jobseekers simply aren't qualified for the positions that are available. If you're an unemployed carpenter, a design engineer position at Intel isn't going to do you much good. And post-bubble, the kind of jobs that will be opening will likely be less of the former and more of the latter.

President Clinton commented on this earlier this year, and proposed an idea for how to fill the gap:

We ought to have a list of every job that's been vacant for more than three weeks, by state, and just give 'em the money to train people immediately. And they ought to be able to do it while they're on unemployment. Give it to the employers if the community colleges and the vocational programs won't do it. ... You know how many jobs that is? Five million. The unemployment rate could go down under 7% if no bank made a single loan [and] if no corporation invested any of their surplus cash -- if we just made sure that tomorrow we had qualified applicants to go fill every posted job opening.

Whatever the reason, here's what's certain: Much of the economy isn't as bad as the employment figures look. Corporate revenue is at an all-time high. Corporate profits are at an all-time high, with companies like Ford (NYSE: F) and Citigroup (NYSE: C) making incredible comebacks over the past two years. GDP is at an all-time high. Consumer spending is at an all-time high. So many things are going so well, and yet structural problems have left employment -- the most important aspect of an economy -- in the tank.

What do you think?

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this article. Intel is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Ford Motor is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Fool owns shares of and has bought calls on Intel. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.