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A stunning number of people find work without even looking for it

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As of February, there were 8.7 million jobless Americans who were looking for work. Some of them will get lucky and find jobs, but even more people who aren't even job-searching will also find work, a new report from the San Francisco Federal Reserve suggests.

According to the bank's analysis of Labor Department data, more than two-thirds of Americans who find new jobs weren't actively seeking work (which the bank defines as having contacted employers, using connections to find work, and sending out resumes; it doesn't include simply looking at ads). The data suggests that recruiters and employers reaching out, not just employees on the job hunt, plays a huge part in helping Americans find new jobs.

hiring chart

The data isn't exactly current — it's from the Labor Department's Contingent Worker Survey, whose last figures are from 2005 — but it does still suggest some surprising facts about how America's workers shuffle around. One is that a stunning 42.2 percent of hires were people who were jobless and not actively looking during the survey's three-month period, but who somehow found work anyway.

Not only that, but the number of current workers who were not searching but found work (25.7 percent of hires) and the number of jobless people who were searching and found work (24.7 percent of hires) were nearly equal.

The study illustrates that there's a messy gray area between "unemployed" (that is, jobless and looking for work) and not in the labor force (jobless and not looking). Some of these jobless people may want work but simply aren't looking hard enough to be "actively searching," and yet they still do find work — a friend tells them about a job and they get it in short order, for example, or they are scooped up by a recruiter.

But the study also shows there's a lot of churn in the labor market that's not readily apparent by simply looking at the number of job postings and jobseekers. The San Francisco Fed authors also point to one 2013 study that found 42 percent of hires in any given month happen at places of employment that don't report vacancies.

The data also emphasizes an important aspect of the labor market: a huge number of hires happen not because people seek out work but because employers seek them out. Clearly, plenty of people will find jobs, even if they aren't really trying.

Still, none of this should discourage the unemployed who are actually looking for work (or those stuck in dead-end jobs and longing for something better) — the reason so many nonseekers find work is because there are just so many of them. For example, as of February, there were 92.9 million Americans not in the labor force, compared with 8.7 million who were unemployed (that is, jobless and looking).

While many of those nearly 93 million aren't interested in working at all, some are open to it. People in that massive pool of nonseekers have a far lower chance of finding work than those who are looking, but because there are so many of them, there are lots who do end up finding new jobs.

Both among the employed and the jobless, those who were searching for work were around six times more likely to find it than those who weren't searching.