May Employment Data Show U.S. Surpassed Pre-Recession Job Totals

The Labor Department released its monthly employment report on Friday. The economy added 217,000 jobs in May, and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 6.3 percent.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Dave Greene.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. The government's monthly jobs report released earlier today shows the U.S. economy hit a milestone in May. The report shows that after years of painfully slow job growth, the United States has finally surpassed the number of jobs it had before the great recession. NPR's John Ydstie has the good news and bad news.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: The good news is that the economy added 217,000 jobs last month. That puts the total number of jobs well above the 138.4 million record set back in December of 2007, just before the economy tumbled into recession. Labor economist Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution says the bad news is that it's taken almost six and a half years just to get back all the jobs we lost in the recession. That's the longest jobs recovery since before World War II.

GARY BURTLESS: It's happy that we're hitting this threshold, but it's sad it's taken us this long.

YDSTIE: Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute agrees that hitting this employment milestone isn't necessarily a proud moment.

HEIDI SHIERHOLZ: We should have added around 7 million jobs over the last six and a half years, just to hold steady. So just getting back to where we were before the recession began nearly six and half years ago, leaves us in a really big hole.

YDSTIE: Burtless says job growth has been steady in the past few years, but too slow to provide employment for all the new working age Americans added during the past six and a half years and the millions laid off during the recession. And he says the relatively rapid decline in the unemployment rate from 10 percent to 6.3 percent is somewhat misleading.

BURTLESS: The unemployment rate is covering up for the fact that lots of people are so discouraged that they are not actively seeking work. They're not counted as unemployed.

YDSTIE: After a big drop in April, many economists had expected the unemployment rate might tick up a notch in May. But it remained at 6.3 percent. Despite the steady decline in the unemployment rate over the last years, May's numbers show that nearly 10 million American remain unemployed. It also showed no change in the number of long-term unemployed, people who've been out of work more than 26 weeks. And partly because many workers are too discouraged to look for employment, the percentage of Americans in the job market remains at a 35-year low. So what's the reason for this slow growth that's held back the job market? Here's one big reason, says Heidi Shierholz, weak consumer demand.

SHIERHOLZ: Employers are smart. They're going to hire people exactly when they need them to meet some increased demand for their goods and services. That's the missing piece. Demand is the missing thing out there.

YDSTIE: The solid May jobs numbers do brighten the picture a bit. They show average job growth over the past three months above 230,000. That suggests the economy continues its steady recovery. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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