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Kaitlin Foran, a senior at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, meets with a prospective employer at a job fair at National Harbor in Maryland.
Kaitlin Foran, a senior at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, meets with a prospective employer at a job fair at National Harbor in Maryland. T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images
Congratulations Class of 2014! You are entering a labor market that offers a record number of paychecks.
On Friday, the Labor Department said the U.S. economy now has 138.5 million jobs, slightly more than the previous high set in early 2008 — just as the Great Recession was tightening its grip.
The post-recession peak came after employers added 217,000 jobs in May. That marked the fourth straight month when payrolls increased by at least 200,000. That kind of hiring streak has not happened since late 1999.
But the unemployment rate held steady at 6.3 percent — a rate that remains elevated because the number of jobs has not grown as fast as the population over the last six years.
"The economy has recaptured all the jobs that were lost during the recession, and is now beginning to show incremental employment growth from over six years ago," said Doug Handler, chief U.S. economist for IHS Global Insight.
That growth, however slow, is nudging up pay. In May, wages rose by a nickel an hour, helping earnings rise 2.1 percent from last year.
May's data on jobs and wages fits with earlier predictions of brighter prospects for the 1.8 million Americans graduating from college with bachelor's degrees this year.
A survey done this spring by the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed companies plan to hire nearly 9 percent more college graduates compared with 2013. And the survey also showed employers are boosting starting salaries by 1.2 percent over last year.
For those graduates who studied science or engineering, this hiring season looks particularly encouraging. One NACE survey showed petroleum engineers are getting starting pay of more than $95,000 a year.
Shelby Sweat, an Atlanta resident who graduated from Georgia Tech last year, said she and her classmates have not had any trouble finding work in science and technology fields. As a biology major, she quickly landed a job in a research laboratory at Emory University.
"I had a really good job-hunting experience," she said. "I got the first job I applied for."
She said Georgia Tech's focus on hard sciences made the difference. "Everyone I know who came out of my school had a good job experience," she said. "But that has not been the case for some of my friends who were English majors" at liberal arts colleges, Sweat added.
Still, even liberal arts majors are doing a little better than they have in the recent past. A new NACEreport showed an 11.5 percent increase in job offers to people who majored in education and a 9.5 percent rise for those in communications.
The Labor Department data showed job gains last month were widely dispersed across many sectors. But some industries stood out. For example, manufacturers added 10,000 jobs, marking the eleventh straight monthly rise. But federal government jobs were down by 5,000, with about half of those cuts coming at the U.S. Postal Service.
While May did provide reasons for optimism, many discouraging indicators remain. For example, some 9.8 million people remain unemployed. Of those, 3.4 million have been looking for work for six months or longer.
Those are very high numbers, considering the recovery began in June 2009. The problem is that while employers have added back the jobs lost in the recession, they have not expanded fast enough to keep pace with population growth.
And that has left a lot of people too discouraged to even try to find work. In May, the labor-force participation rate showed no improvement, holding steady at the low level of 62.8 percent. Before 2009, the rate had held above 66 percent for decades.
Given the mix of good and bad indicators, economist Heidi Shierholz concludes that "the economy is healing, but far from healed."
Shierholz, who works for the Economic Policy Institute — a liberal research group, said the pace of job growth remains well below the pace of population expansion. "We now need 7 million jobs to get back to health in the labor market," she said.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a statement that "our economy can and should be doing a lot better, and we have a long way to go before getting beyond this new normal of slow growth."