Hidden Gems of the Jobs Report Here are three illuminating but largely overlooked numbers from today's jobs report.
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Hidden Gems of the Jobs Report

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Hidden Gems of the Jobs Report

Hidden Gems of the Jobs Report

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

I'm Stacey Vanek Smith, and this is THE INDICATOR, Planet Money's quick take on numbers in the news, and today is jobs day.

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VANEK SMITH: You've probably already heard the headline jobs numbers that came out this morning. The unemployment rate for December held steady at 4.1 percent and the economy added 148,000 jobs. But these numbers are just the surface of the monthly jobs report. The report is this really amazing collection of data, and it tells you a huge amount about what's going on with jobs in America.

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VANEK SMITH: So today on the show, we are bringing you three indicators, three numbers in the jobs report that you don't normally hear, and they give us a real insight into what's going on with work in America.

JUSTIN WOLFERS: How much in the weeds do you want to go?

VANEK SMITH: We can go all the way into the weeds.

WOLFERS: OK.

VANEK SMITH: Take us to the weeds.

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VANEK SMITH: So what we're going to do on the show today is talk to three different economists about their favorite numbers in the jobs report. What are the sleepers? What are the unsung heroes of data? First up is Elise Gould.

ELISE GOULD: I am a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

VANEK SMITH: Elise says when the jobs report comes out, her eyes go straight to one number.

GOULD: The share of the prime age population who has a job.

VANEK SMITH: This is the percentage of people between the ages of 25 and 54 who have a job. And there are two key parts of this. The first part is the age part - ages 25 to 54.

GOULD: So you're getting rid of anyone 55 and above, you know, the baby boomer, retirement or anything like that, and getting rid of people that are below 25, so people who might be making decisions to go to college or to stay in school.

VANEK SMITH: So you're just looking at people who are prime working age and then you're asking what percentage of them have a job. The answer, according to today's job report, is our first indicator - 79.1 percent. Right now, 79.1 percent of the people living in this country between the ages of 25 and 54 have a job, which means more than 20 percent of them don't have a job. Now, some of the people who aren't working are choosing to stay home, raising kids, taking care of a parent or maybe they just worked at the right startup and hitched their wagon to a unicorn. But some of these prime-age people still want a job, and Elise says even after years of economic recovery, this indicator has not gotten back to where it was before the recession. Not everybody has gone back to work.

GOULD: I think that that is why employers don't feel the need to offer higher wages and to see that stronger wage growth because they know that there are still a lot of workers waiting in the wings.

VANEK SMITH: So that is indicator No. 1. For our second secret jobs number, indicator No. 2, we called up Jed Kolko, chief economist at indeed.com, an employment site. And he says one of the things he likes to look at in the jobs reports are the numbers for different industries and sectors. And the one he has found particularly interesting recently is manufacturing. It's been doing surprisingly well. Our second indicator for today - 1.6 percent. According to today's jobs numbers, the number of manufacturing jobs grew by 1.6 percent over the past year. That is faster than the overall rate of job growth in America.

JED KOLKO: That's a big change from 2016 when manufacturing jobs fell. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why this is happening.

VANEK SMITH: Jed has two theories. First, he says, the dollar has gotten weaker, so our exports are cheaper in other countries, and that is good for manufacturers. Also says Jed, Trump talked a lot about supporting manufacturing when he was running for president. It was a big part of his campaign. That might have encouraged investment in manufacturing. OK. So for our third and final jobs number, I called up Justin Wolfers of the University of Michigan. I caught him on his way into a conference.

And you are currently in Philadelphia.

WOLFERS: I'm currently in Philadelphia, and the background music you can hear is the American Economic Association conference.

VANEK SMITH: Are you - is it - are you, like, in the lobby?

WOLFERS: I am in the lobby surrounded by people in ill-fitting suits.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

In the spirit of talking to us from an economics conference, Justin went deep into the report for this number.

WOLFERS: Here's another one for the nerds - the response rate.

VANEK SMITH: The response rate. So the government gets the job numbers by sending out surveys, and what Justin is telling us to pay attention to is what share of businesses replied to last month's survey. The answer is our third and final indicator - 64.9 percent. That was the percentage of companies that replied to the December job survey. That is the lowest response rate in years.

WOLFERS: It mean there's a lot of data still to come in.

VANEK SMITH: The government is going to keep collecting those surveys. Companies will just send them in late. And the government will revise today's big headline jobs number based on those remaining surveys. So the fact the response rate is so low means the revisions may be bigger than usual. So it means we shouldn't take today's headline jobs number that seriously. Maybe the economy added a lot more than the reported 148,000 jobs in December - or not. Justin says the surveys tend to come in late during times of great action, when companies are distracted by lots of hiring or lots of firing. So this number shows us that we may need to wait another month to get a real picture of what happened in December.

OK, this is the weeds.

WOLFERS: Yeah, I told you.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

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VANEK SMITH: We'd love to hear what you think of the show or if you have any ideas for an indicator. Send us an email - indicator@npr.org.

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