Unemployment stays steady in June at 6.3%

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The Department of Labor sent out a tweet Friday cheering the nation’s latest job report: “51 consecutive months of private sector job growth.” The social message also noted, “We still have much more to do.”

That, in a nutshell, summed up the Bureau of Labor Statistics employment report showing May’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate unchanged from April’s 6.3 percent and the economy adding 217,00 jobs during the month.

Economists who have been watching the economy come back from the end of the Great Recession nearly five years ago at the speed of a garden slug greeted the news with underwhelming applause. The nation may have finally recovered as many jobs as it had lost during the recession but, they pointed out, the number of jobs has not kept up with the increase of population.

Wall Street nevertheless responded with a measure of enthusiasm. The Dow Jones industrial average was up 87.98 points or 0.52 percent to close at 16,924.09. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index was up 8.97 or 0.46 percent to close at 1,949.43, and the Nasdaq composite was up 25.17 or 0.59 percent to close at 4,321.40.

To return to the levels of employment seen before the recession, the nation’s payrolls would have to have another 6.9 million jobs, said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, in Washington, D.C. At the current rate of growth, it would take almost four years to reach a point at which the nation truly has the same portion of the population employed.

The number of jobs and the unemployment percentage are just part of the story.

Before the Great Recession, 66 percent of the population over 16 was either working or looking for work, and hence participating in the labor force.

In May, the labor force participation rate was down to 62.8, tied with the lowest levels of this post-recessionary period and the lowest it has been since the 1970s.

That means if the participation level was in May where it had been at the start of the recession, there would be almost 7.6 million more people in the workforce. During the past several years, some of the population has passed retirement age, so the participation rate isn’t expected to rise quite that high when the economy fully recovers.

At the start of the recession in December 2007, unemployment was 5 percent, or 1.3 percentage points, below where it is now. Ms. Shierholz said.

Jason Furman, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said in his report on the employment situation, “The president believes that more can and should be done to strengthen economic growth and expand economic opportunity.”

Specifically he noted that, for construction workers, the unemployment rate — while half of what it was at its peak — is “an important signal that underutilized resources still remain in the construction sector.”

Mr. Furman said, ”The president continues to push for investments in infrastructure that would further reduce unemployment in the construction sector and strengthen the economy in the near term, while making it more productive over the long run.”

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.

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