Employment Service, U.S.

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EMPLOYMENT SERVICE, U.S. The public employment service system in the United States evolved from a combination of city, state, and federal legislation over a period of about six decades. About 1890, individual municipalities in both the United States and Europe established the first publicly financed employment offices. These usually catered to unskilled and casual labor. The recurrent cycles of unemployment, coupled with complaints against private employment agencies and the lack of farm labor in many states, led to the development of a system of municipal offices. By the 1920s, some state employment services had come into existence. By 1923, municipal and state legislative bodies in thirty-two states had enacted public employment office laws, but many of the offices suffered from serious shortcomings. The municipal offices that continued to exist were inadequate. There was little uniformity in record keeping, and, with few exceptions, offices were inefficient and inadequately staffed. The state services were little better. Eventually, the need for improved record keeping and administrative procedures and for a closer working relationship between the public employment services and the states, became apparent.

The federal government's public employment work goes back to 1907, when the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization became responsible for distributing immigrant labor among the states. In 1914, the Immigration Service developed the beginnings of a nationwide information system about employment opportunities. By the time the United States entered World War I, the federal government had established an employment unit in the Department of Labor—the U.S. Employment Service (USES). Reduced appropriations at the end of the war sharply curtailed the activities of this unit, and the USES ceased to exist. Nevertheless, during 1917 and 1918, the employment service made a significant contribution to mobilizing the nation's workers for the war effort. At the beginning of the Great Depression, Congress enacted a national employment service; however, President Herbert Hoover vetoed it.

The Wagner-Peyser Act of 1933, amended in 1998, re-established the USES to set minimum standards, develop uniform administrative and statistical procedures, publish employment information, and promote a system of "clearing labor" between states. During the Great Depression, the USES had a major responsibility for developing essential information about local job vacancies and job opportunities, and then seeking to match the unemployed with available positions. It also played a vital role in placing unemployed workers on the many government work projects developed during the 1930s. The Social Security Act of 1935 necessitated a state employment service since, in most cases, only a public employment office could pay unemployment insurance benefits. By the time of the American entry into World War II, state employment services operating in collaboration with the USES operated in all states.

During World War II, the nation relied heavily upon the public employment services for worker allocation. Since World War II, however, enormous changes have forced reconsideration of the role that government agencies play in combating unemployment, and of the services they provide. The expanded role of the USES now requires the federal service to make labor surveys, certify training needs, provide testing and counseling, expand job placement for trained persons, and provide information and guidance on occupational needs.

The USES has been more successful in placing unskilled and semiskilled workers than white-collar and professional employees. Most large businesses maintain extensive employment departments of their own and do not depend substantially on the public agencies. Professional societies, universities, labor unions, and fee-charging employment agencies also perform job-placement functions.

The activities of the USES are constantly under re-appraisal by the Labor and Education Committee of the House of Representatives and similar committees in the Senate concerned with employment problems. As a result of that scrutiny, in the mid-1960s the federal government embarked upon a worker development and training program; in 1972 it passed the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act.

The number of persons who have been referred to or placed in jobs stands as one measure of the success or contribution of the public employment service. In the early and mid-1960s, more than 6 million placements were made. A sharp decline followed, but a reversal occurred in 1973 when the 2,500 local offices made 4.6 million nonfarm placements—a 26 percent rise over fiscal year 1972. Nonetheless, alone the number of placements made is not an adequate measure of the "productivity" of the federal and state employment service. For example, in the early 1970s, the number of short-term placements for casual labor was declining while the proportion of placements in better paid professional, technical, and managerial jobs rose from 3.5 percent in 1971 to 4.5 percent in 1973. Furthermore, the less desirable domestic service jobs declined from 8 percent to 5 percent.


Breen, W. J. Labor Market Politics and the Great War: The Department of Labor, the States, and the First U.S. Employment Service, 1907–1933. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997.

Dubofsky, Melvyn. The State and Labor in Modern America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Gordon, Colin. New Deals: Business, Labor, and Politics in America, 1920–1935. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Vittoz, Stanley. New Deal Labor Policy and the American Industrial Economy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

WilliamHaber/a. e.

See alsoJob Corps ; Labor ; Labor, Department of ; Labor Legislation and Administration ; Social Security .

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