Fast food nation: What's driving the jobs numbers

May jobs report by the numbers
May jobs report by the numbers   

America's fast-moving jobs train is being powered by fast food.

May's big gain in nonfarm payrolls helped allay fears that employment growth was stuck in the same mud bog that has muted growth across other economic sectors this year. The U.S. has been averaging 251,000 net new jobs a month over the past year, with May's 280,000 topping even that number.

Looking over that time, and indeed the past decade or so, tells a less glittery story.

In the past 10 years, the headline unemployment rate is actually higher now—from 5.1 percent in May 2005 to the current 5.5 percent. The number gets even worse when you factor in the labor force participation rate, as the Labor Department does not count in the headline rate those working part time for economic reasons or who have quit looking for work. In that decade span, the labor force participation rate has tumbled from 66.1 percent to 62.9 percent, which is near the lowest level in more than 35 years,.

Factoring in the underemployed and those who have stopped looking for work, the rate has gone from 8.9 percent to 10.8 percent.

The National Employment Labor Project, which advocates for the jobless, pointed out another sobering statistic Friday: Fast food industry jobs have set the pace since 2000, rising 23.3 percent, against a 5.1 percent overall gain in private sector job growth.

In New York City specifically, fast food jobs exploded by 87 percent, or about twice the rate of the previous 15-year period. In New York state, the gain was 57 percent at a time when private jobs increased by just 7 percent.

A McDonald's restaurant with a "now hiring" sign, in Sarasota, Fla.
Scott Mlyn | CNBC
A McDonald's restaurant with a "now hiring" sign, in Sarasota, Fla.

That's coincided with a boom in industry profits, which increased 14.5 percent from 2010 to 2014 statewide and 11 percent nationally. However, fast food wages adjusted for inflation declined 5.5 percent nationally and 3.6 percent in New York state.

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More broadly, bars and restaurants have helped fuel national job growth. Food and drinking places have added 355,000 jobs over the past year, including a 17,000 gain in May. Leisure and hospitality was the second-best job creator for the month, adding 57,000 positions.

Some economists will argue that employment in the leisure sector is a positive for the economy, as it signals a demand for such positions because regular folks are eating out more.

However, others see still-troubling signs, particularly in the low wage growth and the level of long-term unemployment. The average time period for joblessness remains elevated at 30.7 weeks, compared with 18.6 weeks in May 2005 and 17.1 weeks in June 2008, when the headline jobless rate was 5.6 percent.

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"Twenty-five million people were unemployed for 27 weeks or more in May—an historically high 29 percent of all unemployment," Robert Murphy, an economics professor at Boston College and former Clinton administration economist, said in a statement.

"These long-term unemployed, along with those who are working part time but want full-time jobs, and those who have left the labor force, are a sign of continuing slack in the labor market and a reason why wage growth remains sluggish," he added. "Despite a small pickup in the latest report, over the past year, wages have risen by only 2.3 percent, far below the 3 percent to 4 percent typically seen at this stage of an economic recovery, and barely keeping pace with inflation."

Still, Wall Street is sticking with its narrative: The jobs market is getting better, wage growth is accelerating at a slow but steady pace and all is well enough for the Federal Reserve to start raising interest rates soon.

"The tightening in the labor market is slowly resulting in higher wages," Bank of America Merrill Lynch economists said in a note Friday. "Although these data are noisy, we think the combination of a slightly higher trend in average hourly earnings and notable improvement in the employment cost index reveals wage pressure is building."