Six years after the Great Recession, we’re finally back to (drumroll, please): Exactly where we started.
There were 138.4 million jobs in 2008, when the economy first hit the doldrums. Thanks to the 217,000 nonfarm payroll jobs U.S. employers added in May, 138.5 million Americans are now employed. Too bad there are now an additional 7 million U.S. workers in the labor pool.
"Just getting back to where we were before the recession began nearly six and a half years ago leaves us in a really big hole," Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute told NPR’s Morning Edition.
Overall, the latest report from the National Bureau of Labor Statistics is a mixed bag. The steady growth of the last four months is encouraging—employers have been adding at least 200,000 jobs per month since February—but the unemployment rate is stuck at 6.3%.
Here are four questions to ask in order to get to the real story behind the numbers.
Are the long-term unemployed finding work?
This has been one of the most pressing concerns for policymakers, who have been flummoxed by the challenge of retraining workers with outdated or mismatched skills. Over the past 12 months, the ranks of the long-term unemployed dropped by close to 1 million. But in May, that progress flatlined: 3.4 million Americans have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more, a number virtually unchanged since April.
Despite the commitment of some large companies to stop discriminating against this population, which represents a third of the overall unemployed, no one seems to have found a solution that works at scale.
Do the jobs being created pay a living wage?
All jobs are not created equal. Making a living wage, with opportunities for advancement, has become an elusive goal for many workers—and that sense of discouragement has been holding back consumer spending. Moreover, as Gothamist found in interviews with five casino workers who saw their incomes double from roughly $10 to over $20 per hour, thanks to a revised union contract, the impact on quality of life can be immediate.
On this front, the tides may finally be turning. The glaring spotlight on inequality is putting pressure on elected officials, and a handful of cities like Seattle have made commitments to increasing the minimum wage.
"We just can't expect the people who prepare our food, care for our elders and children, and clean our homes and offices to earn wages that keep them trapped in poverty," Seattle city council member Sally J. Clark wrote in explanation of her vote in support of transitioning to a $15 per hour minimum.
Which companies and industries are hiring?
Community college students who become app developers—to the tune of $72,000 per year—make for a good story. But are the disruptive technology companies we love—and love to hate—helping create enough jobs to turn the economy around?
Based on how the government categorizes jobs, it’s hard to say. The vast majority of the jobs added in May fall into three sectors: education and health services, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality. Technology is a "horizontal" across these industries, and can enable new opportunities. But as Fast Company’s Sarah Kessler found in "Pixel and Dimed," the promise of income from the technology-enabled gig economy is often prettier than the reality.
Which cities and states are thriving, and which are struggling?
If Elvis were alive today, he might be singing a different tune—Viva...Bismarck? While unemployment rates in states like Nevada, hard-hit by the housing crisis, have remained high above the national average, states like North Dakota have benefitted from growing sectors like energy.
The lesson for job seekers: Find a knowledge center like a university town, or a small city built around energy production. "Overwhelmingly, these are the places driving the economic recovery. Outside them, the economy remains troubled and weak," according to The Atlantic.