SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.
DARIAN WOODS, HOST:
And I'm Darian Woods. And it is Jobs Friday.
VANEK SMITH: It's Jobs Friday. Let's not waste any time. Let's get right to the numbers. Darian Woods, do the honors.
WOODS: In May, the U.S. economy added 559,000 jobs while the unemployment rate fell to 5.8%.
VANEK SMITH: Which is a huge improvement over last month, when the economy added 278,000 new jobs, and everyone started panicking.
WOODS: Responses to this report have been pretty mixed. So to figure out what to make of 559,000 new jobs, we called Julia Pollak. She's a labor economist at ZipRecruiter.
VANEK SMITH: When you opened up these numbers, like, what went through your head?
JULIA POLLAK: Meh (ph) - this report is kind of...
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).
WOODS: A meh May.
VANEK SMITH: A meh May, I know. But here's the weird part, Darian. In the history of jobs reports going all the way back to the 1930s, the May jobs report - our meh May - is one of the best all-time jobs reports ever recorded in terms of the number of jobs added in one month.
VANEK SMITH: It's, like, in the top 20.
WOODS: I like to hear it.
VANEK SMITH: Yeah.
WOODS: So, Stacey...
VANEK SMITH: Yeah.
WOODS: Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
VANEK SMITH: I was thinking exactly what you are thinking, and I asked Julia Pollak this very question.
So OK - so you know, at THE INDICATOR traditionally for Jobs Friday, before all of - before COVID, we used to play an air horn every month. You know, it was like Jobs Friday. We got very excited. We have not really played the air horn because it's - the news has been so bad for the last year. I don't know. Is this an air-horn number?
POLLAK: This is not quite an air-horn number for me. This is like a children's orchestra horn section number, where the horns are kind of cracking. And they're sort of getting the notes. And they're...
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).
POLLAK: ...You know, a little bit out of tune. And you're kind of cheering because the kids are trying so hard, but it's just not quite doing it for you.
VANEK SMITH: So, yeah, it's sort of like a middle-school orchestra effort.
POLLAK: That's exactly what I'm thinking, yes.
WOODS: All right. Here we go. It's...
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Here we go.
WOODS: ...Jobs Friday.
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VANEK SMITH: Today on the show, is May really meh?
WOODS: Also, we talk to a woman who was laid off from her job last year and who is now part of a couple of pretty surprising job trends.
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WOODS: So first off, we wanted to ask labor economist Julia Pollak about meh May, especially since on its face, 559,000 jobs added in four weeks sounds pretty mehvelous (ph).
VANEK SMITH: Wow (laughter). But you make a great point, Darian, because before COVID times, adding, like, 200,000 jobs a month was considered to be really awesome - I mean, definite air-horn territory.
POLLAK: We're in a very, very different world now, where we still have 7.6 million people who lost jobs since the pandemic. Because this shock was so deep and sudden but also temporary and so tied to the pandemic, I think the big hope was that the recovery could also be this very rapid sort of V-shaped recovery. And we could get right back to where we were before the pandemic. You know, I was really hoping for a summer of 1 million jobs added each month.
WOODS: And Julia says she thought May would be that month. There were all these promising economic signals out there.
POLLAK: I expected that with vaccinations picking up and with COVID cases coming down, that we would see a lot more activity. You know, spending numbers have been amazing.
VANEK SMITH: Yes.
POLLAK: Spending is up dramatically on credit cards. Restaurant dining is up. It's above pre-pandemic levels in some states.
VANEK SMITH: But a lot of those restaurants cannot get the workers they need. Wages rose pretty substantially in May across a bunch of industries. Still, Julia says, workers are not taking those jobs as fast as a lot of employers and she, as an economist, had hoped.
POLLAK: I think there are all kinds of reasons why this might be the case. The, you know, pandemic still exists. It hasn't gone away. Child care challenges are still a problem for many people. And then those expanded benefits are giving people some time to hold out for better opportunities, to hold out for remote work opportunities, which are extremely, extremely popular among job-seekers right now, and a little bit of time possibly to invest in new skills, explore new industries. We've seen a huge boom in the number of people taking realtor exams, for example, and becoming real estate agents.
WOODS: Dulce Alfaro recently took that exam. She lives in Phoenix, Ariz. And for years, she worked at an upscale restaurant.
DULCE ALFARO: We were constantly busy. It was an amazing schedule. It was really good money as well. And then we started hearing about the pandemic. And within, like, two to three weeks, everyone was unemployed.
VANEK SMITH: Dulce went from working this busy, exciting job to staying home, mostly inside 24/7. Dulce says, actually, it gave her time to think about what she wanted to do next when the economy opened back up and she could work again.
ALFARO: I wanted something that was going to inspire me and motivate me and make me uncomfortable. And I wanted a career, not a job.
WOODS: A career - her former colleague had gone into real estate and was thriving. Homes have been selling like crazy since the pandemic began. And Dulce thought, yeah, that could be my career. Also, she could work for herself, be her own little business.
VANEK SMITH: In fact, a lot of people have been going this route lately, starting their own businesses. Economist Julia Pollak says there were hundreds of thousands of them in May alone.
POLLAK: The number of self-employed people rose by 351,000, which is pretty substantial. There are, you know, lots of people who are jumping into self-employment at the moment.
WOODS: It's been really good for Dulce. Since passing her real estate exam six months ago, she's been selling homes. And in fact, when we called her up at 8:45 in the morning, she'd already been up for three hours.
ALFARO: When you called me, literally five minutes before that, someone - we made an offer on a property, and they had called me that they were accepting the offer, so I'm just waiting right now for that to lock in (laughter). And not only that, we also made another offer for another client this morning too (laughter).
VANEK SMITH: I mean, Dulce has only been doing this for six months. And she says so far, her career in real estate has been really amazing.
ALFARO: I am making the most money I have ever made in my entire life.
WOODS: Around $85,000 a year, she estimates.
VANEK SMITH: Dulce says getting laid off and being trapped in her house for eight months was terrifying and traumatizing. But ultimately, she says, it changed the course of her career and of her life.
ALFARO: Honestly, when I look at myself in pictures, I see a whole different person. I honestly - I don't like to say, like, these type of things out loud because I know COVID affected a lot of people in such a negative and ugly way. But what happened with me, it sort of - I'm so sorry to say this, but it gave me an opportunity to really sit down and see what I wanted to do with my life, where I wanted to take my job. I feel like I have completely changed. And when I see myself in pictures, it's like I know that's me, but it's not me (laughter). It's just a whole different person in so many ways.
WOODS: Labor economist Julia Pollak says this is a really promising trend - people taking a bit of time to figure out what they want to do, find jobs that are a really good fit where they can thrive to be their most productive selves.
VANEK SMITH: And maybe, just maybe, get us to that million-jobs-a-month marker this summer.
WOODS: Here's hoping.
VANEK SMITH: Fingers crossed, Darian, for a jubilant June.
WOODS: I hope so, too.
VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin and fact-checked by Sam Cai. We are edited by Kate Concannon; also special thanks to Tom Michael (ph) and Katherine Shaughnessy (ph). THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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