200K more Americans and 200K more jobs, but 300K more ‘want a job’

BY Paul Solman  June 6, 2014 at 11:52 AM EST
Total payrolls have finally passed their pre-recession level, but nearly 300,000 more people than last month still say they want a job even if they haven't looked in the last month. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

Total payrolls have finally passed their pre-recession level, but nearly 300,000 more people than last month still say they want a job even if they haven’t looked in the last month. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

The highlights of May’s unemployment report from the monthly survey of households: there were roughly 200,000 more people in the “civilian population” than in April, roughly 200,000 more in the “civilian labor force” and roughly 200,000 more people employed. And from the survey of employers, there were roughly 200,000 more jobs created. For once, the two surveys jibe, telling the same consistent story: the economy is adding enough jobs to absorb the growing workforce, but not enough to sop up existing unemployment.

And sure enough, the household survey reports roughly the same number of unemployed Americans in May than in April (actually, 46,000 more), which is why the unemployment rate held steady at 6.3 percent.

But the big news, at least for us, is to be found in the so often unreported number that we devoutly track, a line in the household survey page known as Table A-1. The line reads “Not in labor force – Persons who currently want a job.” Those are Americans, in other words, who tell the survey-takers that they “want a job” but admit they haven’t looked for one in the past four weeks. In April, there were 6,146,000 Americans in that position, as projected from the monthly survey of 60,000 households. Back in February, there were barely 6 million. But in May, the total shot up to 6,438,000, a rise of nearly 300,000 from the month before. And that number is “seasonally adjusted” downward. Looking at the raw numbers, one million more Americans than last month said they wanted a job but hadn’t looked for one in the past 28 days.

May 2014 Solman Scale

Add the fact that the number of part-timers looking for full-time work held steady at 7.3 million and you can see why our U-7 inclusive count of the un- and underemployed actually rose a bit in May, from 14.38 to 14.46 percent.

One more sobering note: the quality of the jobs being created. For Friday’s program, we interview MIT business professor Paul Osterman, who tells us that a quarter of all working adults are working in poverty-level jobs – and they have been for 20 years. He’s worried that although job growth is continuing, the gains are not in the right kinds of jobs.

In Friday’s report, we also speak with Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. A recent report from NELP underscored Osterman’s fears, finding that low-wage jobs in sectors like retail, restaurant and administrative services have accounted for the biggest share of job gains since the recession.

Because many of these jobs are low-paying, and because the unemployment rate is often artificially pushed downward by a declining labor force participation rate (still at its lowest since 1978 at 62.8 percent), some economists are concerned that these two headline numbers are no longer indicative of the health of the labor market.

Some good news to end: with May’s payroll gains, payrolls now exceed their pre-recession level.