STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The U.S. job market sounds amazing right now, with unemployment around 3.6%. But what's it feel like to be in that market? All this week, we're asking what this economy means for people looking for a job, or looking for a better job or looking for a raise. Wages are rising, and some people who'd given up seeking work at all are coming back, yet some old economic divides have persisted. NPR's Scott Horsley spoke with David Greene.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: So how tight is this tight labor market right now?
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It is tight across the country, but it's really tight in some places. One of my NPR colleagues, Jim Zarroli, is going to take us to Ames, Iowa, which has the nation's lowest unemployment rate. It's just 1.5%. And that means people like restaurant manager Elizabeth Kopecky really struggle to find and keep good help.
ELIZABETH KOPECKY: We, last year, had a call from a restaurant down the street asking if we had any extra staff that they could share. That's how bad it's getting.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: What did you tell them?
KOPECKY: That we didn't have enough for ourselves.
HORSLEY: Even though wages have been going up in Ames, they still have trouble attracting workers. There just aren't a lot of people moving to Iowa, despite the healthy job market. We did find, though, people are moving to opportunities in other parts of the country.
GREENE: Like where? Where are there opportunities right now?
HORSLEY: People are moving to places like Atlanta, Tallahassee, and Charlotte, N.C. We've seen an influx of workers from up north looking for better jobs and also for more affordable housing. In particular, a lot of African Americans are making this move, sort of the reversal of the Great Migration we saw in the last century. NPR's Daniella Cheslow spent some time talking with African-American workers in North Carolina, both newcomers and some longtime residents, like Nicole Muse-Dennis (ph). She's a single mother of two who says she's working 65 hours a week and just barely getting by.
NICOLE MUSE-DENNIS: I'm what I call over-employed. I have two jobs, and I'm still trying to make it.
HORSLEY: Unemployment among African Americans, David, is 6.7 percent. That is low by historical standards, but it's still nearly double the national average.
GREENE: Well, Scott, we've been talking about full employment for a while. And yet, every month, employers are finding more people to hire. So what exactly is happening? Give me the broad look here?
HORSLEY: One thing that's happened is that people who had been out of the job market altogether, either by choice or otherwise, are being lured back in. We have a number of stories in our series about, for example, women coming back into the job market. Sometimes full-time, sometimes in the gig economy. And other groups that were sort of on the margins - for example, people with disabilities or a prison record, those might have been disqualifying in the past, but desperate employers, like Christopher Dickerson (ph), say, not anymore.
CHRISTOPHER DICKERSON: I don't care what your background is. I don't care where you came from. I don't care what color you are. I don't care - as long as you come to work every single day and give me everything that you can give me.
HORSLEY: Over the last couple of years, David, about 7 in 10 new people finding jobs have been coming off the sidelines rather than from the ranks of the unemployed.
GREENE: Well, what does all of this mean for people's paychecks? I mean, for a while, we kept talking about, even though the economy seemed to be doing better and better, wages weren't really keeping pace with inflation.
HORSLEY: Yeah. For a lot of this very long economic expansion, wages did not go up very much. But they are finally picking up. And that's especially true for people on the lower rungs of the income ladder, which is encouraging. There is no question workers have more bargaining power now. And one of the things we looked at in the series is collective bargaining. During the recession, some unions grudgingly agreed to accept lower wages for newer workers, and that created some friction on the factory floor when people were doing the same job for less money. We're finally starting to see some of that turn around. I spoke with Courtney Herring (ph), who works at the Kohler company in Wisconsin. They recently inked a new contract that phases out that two-tiered wage scale.
COURTNEY HERRING: You could tell there was a lot of happy people, a lot of 'em. Production went up. People are wanting to stay for more overtime because they know it's worth their time now. So they're actually able to go out and do more things, or save up for something.
GREENE: All right. One of the voices in our full employment series, which is taking place all this week on the radio. You can also find it at npr.org. And you'll hear more on this program tomorrow. Been talking with NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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