Highlights and Lowlights From March's Jobs Report

Easy come, easy go. After three months of strong growth, 120,000 jobs were created in March -- the least since October, and below the average of about 200,000 over the prior six months. The unemployment rate fell to 8.2%, or the lowest since January 2009. The Dow Jones (INDEX: ^DJI) fell more than 1% this morning, likely in reaction.

What should you make of it? Not much. No one-month report should be taken too seriously. Nearly all initial jobs reports are eventually revised, often substantially. Since last October, initial employment reports have been revised upwards by a cumulative 290,000 jobs. Highlighting the impreciseness of economic data, the Economist gave wonderful grain-of-salt context for the jobs numbers Friday:

There is a 90% chance that employment rose by between 20,000 and 220,000 jobs. The change in the number of unemployed from February to March was probably between (roughly) -400,000 and 150,000, and there's a good chance that the unemployment rate is between 8.1% and 8.5%. Reported changes for important subsectors are too small relative to the margin of error to be worth discussing. In all probability, the employment growth has remained close to the recent trend of a 200,000 jobs per month increase.

That, folks, is the most honest and practical jobs-report summary you will ever see.


But, there are a few broader trends in the jobs data worth pointing out -- some positive, some negative.

The six-month average jobs-creation figure is now around 200,000 per month. That's not great, given the severity of job losses in 2008 and 2009. But, it's more than the rate of population growth; if sustained, it should bring the unemployment rate down slowly over time. According to the Brookings Institute, demographic changes mean the number of new jobs needed to keep up with population growth is now about 100,000 a month, down from 130,000 a month a few years ago. We're still moving fast enough in the right direction to make a difference, in other words.

But it's important to emphasize how long it could be before things look normal again. Reuters has a neat calculator showing how long it will be before we hit a target unemployment rate at a given level of jobs growth. Averaging 200,000 new jobs a month, it will be -- I'm not making this up -- May 2021 before the unemployment rate is back to 6%. To get the unemployment rate down to 6% by 2014 would require monthly jobs growth of nearly double our current trend.

A broader measure of unemployment that includes those involuntarily working part time and those discouraged from even looking for a job is dropping fast. The so-called U6 unemployment rate fell to 14.5% in March, down from 16.4% as recently as September. Workers classified as part time for economic reasons have declined by more than 550,000 year to date, suggesting marginal workers are moving into full-time work. That's a good thing.

Then again, many of the new jobs being created are hardly high-paying careers. Among all workers, average hourly incomes rose 2.1% in the last year, and weekly earnings are up 2.6% (thanks to working more hours). But inflation was 2.9% over the last year, so the average worker is earning less in real terms than they were a year ago. And though it's hard to quantify, there's a lot of disparity hidden in those averages. A small set of workers are doing very well, while another larger group is falling behind alarmingly fast. In 2009 and 2010, 93% of the nation's income growth went to 1% of wage earners, according to economist Emmanuel Saez; 15,600 households captured 37% of all national growth. That's the kind of stuff you miss when focusing on averages.

A few other important points from the recent jobs report:

  • The unemployment rate for those with a college degree is 4.2%. For those with only a high-school diploma, it's 8%. For those who didn't complete high school, it's 12.6%. What's more expensive than college tuition these days? Not going to college.
  • January's jobs number was revised down by 9,000. February's was revised up by 13,000.
  • The average duration of unemployment is 39 weeks. That's down slightly, but still close to the highest level since the Great Depression.
  • One of the biggest factors keeping the unemployment rate high over the last three years has been a slashing of nearly 700,000 government workers. But it now looks like that trend is nearing an end. Total government employment has been stable since November.
  • When I interviewed economist Diane Swonk last year, she mentioned the rising rate of poverty among veterans, particularly women. Sure enough, the unemployment rate for women veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars rose to 10.8% in March, from 7.5% a year ago. The overall unemployment rate for all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is 10.3%, down from 10.9% a year ago.

What do you think about our jobs situation? Sound off in the comment section below.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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bad9iron

Hey Morgan-- The real concensus about the recent jobs report was reflected by today's fairly significant drop in the markets, which affected all the indices. What is really alarming to me is the cavalier way these statistics are being mutilated by those who try to spin everything regardless of the obvious conclusions. Unfortunately for the country, the biggest abuser is the Federal Government whose commerce department and the Federal Reserve manipulate selected data to suit their immedite needs to fabricate in order to at least give the appearance of some growth or stability in selected economic indicators. While this chicanery has been going on for years mainly at the Fed there are now those who are actively speaking out about these glaring intentions to mislead and defraud the country. The inflation rate is a figment of some bureaucrats imagination (Bernanke) designed to strip the elderly from their deserved COLA while the money is spent foolishly on solar panels and the like by the crooks in office. The unemployment rate is even worse if that's possible because it does not reflect this important indicator with any accuracy (0% confidence level). So why should anyone believe anything that comes out of Washington because everything being done is for personal gain or self aggrandizement by the political elite and their cronies. Disgusted in DC.

April 09 2012 at 4:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply