February’s Strongest Wage Growth in Lowest Paying Sectors

The labor market had another strong month in February, with employers adding 295,000 jobs in the month. While there were small downward revisions to the January numbers, this still left the three month average at 288,000 jobs. The unemployment rate dropped to 5.5 percent, its lowest level since May of 2008, the early days of the recession. The employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) remained at 59.3 percent, more than 3.0 percentage points below its pre-recession level.

The February performance is especially impressive given that an unusually severe winter might have been expected to dampen job growth, especially in sectors like construction and restaurants. Construction added 29,000 jobs and restaurants added an extraordinary 58,700 jobs. Of course, some of the weather effect may show up in the March data, since the worst weather came towards the end of the month, after the reference week for the survey.

The gain in construction brings the average over the last four months to 38,000 jobs. This comes to a 7.5 percent annual growth rate in a context where reported construction spending has been relatively flat. This suggests that there could be some serious measurement issues in the data. Manufacturing employment growth slowed to 8,000 after averaging 28,000 the prior three months. Retail continues to show strong growth, adding 32,000 jobs, bringing its average since August to 29,900. The professional and technical services category, which tends to be higher paying, again showed strong growth, adding 31,800. This is roughly even with its 30,800 average over the last four months.

There were some anomalies in the data that are likely to be reversed. The courier sector added 12,300 jobs, while education services reportedly added 21,300 jobs. Data in both sectors are highly erratic and almost certain to be largely reversed in future months. The temp sector lost 7,800 jobs in February, its second consecutive decline. Health care job growth fell back to 23,800, compared to an average of 39,250 over the prior four months. The 58,700 jobs added in the restaurant sector was the largest monthly gain since November of 2000.

The data in the household survey was mostly positive. Involuntary part-time employment fell by another 175,000 in February and is now 570,000 below its year-ago level. There was a small rise in the number of people who have voluntarily chosen to work part-time. It is now 750,000 above its year-ago level and almost 900,000 higher than in February of 2013, before the exchanges from the Affordable Care Act came into existence.

The percentage of people unemployed because they voluntarily quit their job rose from 9.5 percent to 10.2 percent, its highest level since May of 2008. This is still close to 2.0 percentage points below the pre-recession levels.

The recovery continues to disproportionately benefit less educated workers. The unemployment rate for workers without a high school degree edged down by 0.1 percentage point to 8.4 percent, 1.4 percentage points below its year-ago level. The current unemployment rate for this least educated group of workers is roughly a percentage point above its pre-recession level, while the unemployment rate for college grads is 0.7 percentage points higher at 2.7 percent. However, the contrast in EPOP is striking. The EPOP for workers without high school degrees is down by roughly a percentage point from its pre-recession level, while the EPOP for college grads is down by close to four percentage points.

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Reported wage growth for the month was weak, as expected, following a large reported gain in January. Taking the average for the last three months compared to the prior three months, the annual rate of growth was just 1.8 percent, down from 2.0 percent over the last year. The data on wage growth continue to indicate there is still a large amount of slack in the labor market. There is some evidence of more rapid wage growth in the lowest paying sectors, which is to be expected as workers can increasingly find better jobs elsewhere, but higher-paying sectors continue to show very weak wage growth.

If the economy can sustain job growth in the neighborhood of 300,000 per month, by the end of the year we may start seeing substantial wage gains.