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Brookings on Job Numbers

In November jobs report, real earnings and payrolls improve but labor force participation remains weak

November’s U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) employment report showed continued improvement in the job market, with employers adding 211,000 workers to their payrolls and hourly pay edging up compared with its level a year ago. The pace of job growth was similar to that over the past year and somewhat slower than the pace in 2014. For the 69th consecutive month, private-sector payrolls increased. Since the economic recovery began in the third quarter of 2009, all the nation’s employment gains have occurred as a result of expansion in private-sector payrolls. Government employment has shrunk by more than half a million workers, or about 2.5 percent. In the past twelve months, however, public payrolls edged up by 93,000.

The good news on employment gains in November was sweetened by revised estimates of job gains in the previous two months. Revisions added 8,000 to estimated job growth in September and 27,000 to job gains in October. The BLS now estimates that payrolls increased 298,000 in October, a big rebound compared with the more modest gains in August and September, when payrolls grew an average of about 150,000 a month.

Average hourly pay in November was 2.3 percent higher than its level 12 months earlier. This is a slightly faster rate of improvement compared with the gains we saw between 2010 and 2014. A tighter job market may mean that employers are now facing modestly higher pressure to boost employee compensation. The exceptionally low level of consumer price inflation means that the slow rate of nominal wage growth translates into a healthy rate of real wage improvement. The latest BLS numbers show that real weekly and hourly earnings in October were 2.4 percent above their levels one year earlier. Not only have employers added more than 2.6 million workers to their payrolls over the past year, the purchasing power of workers’ earnings have been boosted by the slightly faster pace of wage gain and falling prices for oil and other commodities.

The BLS household survey also shows robust job gains last month. Employment rose 244,000 in November, following a jump of 320,000 in October. More than 270,000 adults entered the labor force in November, so the number of unemployed increased slightly, leaving the unemployment rate unchanged at 5.0 percent. In view of the low level of the jobless rate, the median duration of unemployment spells remains surprisingly long, 10.8 weeks. Between 1967 and the onset of the Great Recession, the median duration of unemployment was 10.8 weeks or higher in just seven months. Since the middle of the Great Recession, the median duration of unemployment has been 10.8 weeks or longer for 82 consecutive months. The reason, of course, is that many of the unemployed have been looking for work for a long time. More than one-quarter of the unemployed—slightly more than two million job seekers—have been jobless for at least 6 months.  That number has been dropping for more than five years, but remains high relative to our experience before the Great Recession.

If there is bad news in the latest employment report, it’s the sluggish response of labor force participation to a brighter job picture. The participation rate of Americans 16 and older edged up 0.1 point in November but still remains 3.5 percentage points below its level before the Great Recession. About half the decline can be explained by an aging adult population, but a sizeable part of the decline remains unexplained. The participation rate of men and women between 25 and 54 years old is now 80.8 percent, exactly the same level it was a year ago but 2.2 points lower than it was before the Great Recession. Despite the fact that real wages are higher and job finding is now easier than was the case earlier in the recovery, the prime-age labor force participation rate remains stuck well below its level before the recession. How strong must the recovery be before prime-age adults are induced to come back into the work force? Even though the recovery is now 6 and a half years old, we still do not know.

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