Jobless rate drops to lowest level in 9 years
Unemployment falls to 4.6%, but the growth is uneven
U.S. employers hired at a steady clip in November while the jobless rate fell to its lowest level in nine years, a broadly upbeat performance that could mask underlying soft spots in the labor market.
The U.S. has added more than 15 million jobs since the labor market bottomed out in early 2010. But those gains have been uneven across the nation and across business sectors, pushing swaths of people to the sidelines and by many measures leaving the economy short of prerecession norms.
“The labor market is in better shape than at any point in the recovery,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at job site Indeed. “But we haven’t solved many of the longer-term challenges.”
Even with those challenges, the latest employment report continued a long stretch of steady improvement and suggests the labor market is tightening, keeping Federal Reserve officials on track to increase short-term interest rates when they meet Dec. 13-14.
U.S. employers added a seasonally adjusted 178,000 jobs in November and the unemployment rate fell to 4.6 percent, the Labor Department said Friday. While the rate was the lowest since August 2007, it reflected some people finding jobs while even more dropped out of the workforce.
Indeed, declining participation in the labor force is one of the nation’s more worrisome economic trends, highlighting crosscurrents that have lifted the prospects of many Americans while creating new challenges for others.
For example, the mix of job creation has been heavily weighted toward the service sector. Manufacturers have shed 54,000 jobs, and miners cut 87,300 in the last year. Among traditionally blue-collar professions, construction has been perhaps the strongest with 155,000 new jobs in the last 12 months.
But the much larger professional and business-services sector — everything from computer-systems design to temp workers — added 571,000 jobs, and health care created 407,000 in the same span.
Express Employment Professionals added 38 full-time staff over the past year — including tech, risk compliance and customer service workers — and is looking to hire about 20 more at its Oklahoma City headquarters. To attract and retain employees, the staffing-services firm regularly reviews wages, with some departments recently receiving an annual bump of 7 percent to 9 percent, and has added new benefits to its compensation package. One of the latest is a payment of $5,000 per dependent to help cover child-care costs.
“It’s certainly the right thing to do,” chairman and CEO Bob Funk said. “And companies that have good benefits ... attract some better people. Not only that, it helps us retain. It’s a two-pronged benefit to the company.”
Restaurants have added nearly a quarter-million jobs in the past year. With the labor market getting tighter for service workers, some are able to quickly advance.
More broadly, wage gains across the U.S. have been outpacing inflation, though they stumbled last month.
Average hourly earnings for privatesector workers declined 3 cents from October, or 0.1 percent, to $25.89 in November. Earnings were up 2.5 percent from a year earlier, a step down from October’s 2.8 percent, which was the strongest annual wage growth since June 2009.
A broad measure of unemployment and underemployment, which includes those who have stopped looking and those in part-time jobs who want fulltime positions, was 9.3 percent in November, down from 9.5 percent the prior month and the lowest level since April 2008. The rate averaged 8.3 percent in the two years before the recession.
“It’s a solid report that has a couple of weak spots,” said Gus Faucher, deputy chief economist at PNC Financial Services.