The Jobs Market Reaches a Meaningless Milestone
Business + Economy

The Jobs Market Reaches a Meaningless Milestone

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It's taken more than six years, but the private sector job market in the U.S. has finally gained back all the jobs lost during the Great Recession.

In January 2008, the month after the recession officially began, the private sector employed 115,977,000 workers, an historic high. At the depth of the recession, in February 2010, that number had fallen to 107,187,000 — a loss of some 8.8 million jobs.

It's been a long, slow climb back since then. The economy added 192,000 jobs in March, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Friday. That preliminary figure, close to the consensus of 200,000 expected by economists surveyed by Bloomberg, brings private-sector payrolls to 116,087,000. Businesses have added 8.9 million jobs since the labor market hit its low.

So we've reached a milestone of sorts in the recovery, but there's still a long way to go before the labor market looks genuinely healthy. Some 10.5 million Americans are still out of work, including 3.7 million who have been unemployed for longer than six months. The unemployment rate, at 6.7 percent, is two full percentage points above where it was before the recession. 

Factoring in the loss of government jobs, the labor market is still more than 300,000 jobs shy of where it had been in November 2007. And the private sector rebound doesn't look like much of a milestone when you consider that businesses have now added 110,000 workers in just over six years. Recovery!

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The quality of the jobs that are being created leaves much to be desired, too. The jobs gains in March, for example, were concentrated in low-wage industries like retail, as Mesirow Financial economist Diane Swonk notes, "while the jobs lost to the Great Recession were much higher-paying jobs" in areas like construction and manufacturing.

"The U.S. economy is trending close to our multi-year labor market target, but the underlying long term narrative remains decidedly negative," Guy LeBas, chief fixed income strategist at Janney Capital Markets, wrote in a client note Friday. "In fairness, this numbers/narrative dichotomy exists in large part because the quality of jobs created have fallen a few sandwiches short of a picnic."

As Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, noted in a blog post Thursday, "re-attaining pre-recession employment levels is a pretty meaningless benchmark economically." We're back to where we were, but not back to where we should be. "Because the working-age population (and with it, the potential labor force) is growing all the time, the private sector should have added millions of jobs over the last six-plus years just to hold steady," Shierholz wrote. She puts the jobs gap at nearly 6 million.

This article was last updated on Monday, April 7 to correct the difference between total payrolls now and in November 2007.

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