In May Jobs Report, A Milestone: A Return To Pre-Recession Levels

The May jobs report showed steady job creation. Payrolls expanded by 217,000, and unemployment held steady at 6.3%. And there was a milestone: The U.S. economy now has slightly more jobs than it did in December 2007, when the last recession began.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. New government data out today showed the economy hit an important milestone last month. The U.S. finally regained all the jobs it lost during the Great Recession. Employers added 217,000 jobs in May, pushing the number of jobs in the U.S. to a record level. As NPR's John Ydstie reports, the solid growth is welcome, but passing this milestone didn't spark much celebration.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: It's safe to say not many champagne corks were popped when it became clear the number of payroll jobs had passed the prerecession level. That's because it's taken nearly six and a half years just to regain the 8.7 million jobs lost during the recession. Even the reaction from the White House was subdued. Jason Furman is head of the president's Council of Economic Advisers.

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JASON FURMAN: We're back to where we were at the end of 2007. And absolutely, we should have moved ahead over that time. But every month that we put, you know, 200,000 jobs, you know, a little more, a little bit less, up on the board. You're closing that job gap, and you're moving this economy towards the recovery that we really need.

YDSTIE: Gary Burtless, a labor economist at the Brookings Institution, says for several years now the job market has been turning in fairly steady improvements.

GARY BURTLESS: Just not fast enough to soak up all of the additional unemployed workers that the recession gave us.

YDSTIE: Indeed the unemployment rate remained unchanged in May at 6.3 percent - well above prerecession levels. And nearly 10 million Americans remain unemployed. Many others are so discouraged, they're not looking for jobs. Therefore, they aren't counted as unemployed. Millions are also underemployed, says John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo.

JOHN SILVIA: It's important to note that, yes, we've hit the number of jobs prior to the recession, but the percentage of those jobs that are part-time is significantly greater than before.

YDSTIE: And obviously those part-time jobs come with part-time salaries. That's put a restraint on consumer demand. And Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says that's been a major factor in the slow recovery of the economy and the job market.

HEIDI SHIERHOLZ: When we do see a real ramp-up in demand, employers will have to hire people to meet that demand. And then we will get into a really robust jobs recovery. We're just not quite there yet.

YDSTIE: Job growth has been well above average for the past three months as the job market has bounced back from the hit it took during the severe winter. John Silvia says he thinks it's shifted into a higher gear.

SILVIA: I think when you look at the data, probably by the end of this year, you're going to be average - something like 210,000 to 220,000. That's clearly an improvement over the numbers for the last three years. So now we've reached a new level. I think it's sustainable. I think it's very positive for the overall economy.

YDSTIE: But that will still leave some long-term unemployed behind, says Silvia, because they no longer have the skills to do many of the jobs the economy offers. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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