It matters not just how many people are out of work, but how long they sit idle. The longer a job search takes, the deeper the financial strain on individuals and the more likely that their skills will atrophy.
The deep recession and its slow-recovery aftermath caused the number of long-term unemployed to surge.
In November 2010, for example, some 6.3 million Americans had been out of work for more than half a year, the Labor Department says. Everyone wants to see this number keep trending down. The twist, as already mentioned, is that this kind of measure can fall for more than one reason. Either those people are finding jobs at long last (a good thing) or they could be dropping out of the job search, and thus no longer counted as unemployed (a bad thing).
Despite that statistical murkiness, this is a number worth watching.
While we're talking about a sub-group of the unemployed, it's worth adding that you can track unemployment rates for a whole range of sub-groups, such as by education level, age, gender, and race or ethnicity. Here's a link to the latest summary data from the Labor website.