But what's the REAL unemployment rate?

Job seekers fill out forms for available job opportunities during a construction job fair.
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Job seekers fill out forms for available job opportunities during a construction job fair.

The Labor Department said Friday that the U.S. unemployment rate fell to 4.9 percent in January, the lowest since February 2008. But does that tell the whole story?

Most economists look past the main unemployment number (also known as the "U-3") to other metrics that provide more perspectives on the economy. On jobs day, the Labor Department releases a slew of data, each of which says something different about the state of jobs and wages.

One of those figures is the U-6 rate.

While the U-3 rate measures all unemployed workers as a percent of the civilian labor force, the U-6 includes more. It's defined as all unemployed as well as "persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons" plus all marginally attached workers, as a percentage of the labor force.

That means the rate for the unemployed, the underemployed and the discouraged remains stubbornly above prerecession levels.

The U-6 rate remained unchanged at 9.9 percent in January. Overall, the U-6 has been more volatile than the U-3 rate. It's down 1.4 percentage points over the past year, versus an 0.8-point drop in the U-3.

Despite the improvement that government statistics show, some economists think the real employment situation is much more dire. They point to the labor participation rate, which measures the portion of eligible Americans who are counted among the "employed" in calculating the unemployment rate.

The labor force participation rate rose from the 1960s to a peak in the late 1990s. It's been falling ever since, a fact that many economists attribute to changing demographics, particularly the retirement of the baby boom generation.

The participation rate has shown little improvement in recent month. In January, that figure ticked up 10 basis points from December to 62.7 percent.

The jobs report comes at a delicate time for Wall Street, as global commodities markets have created turmoil in stocks. The jobs report, too, could affect whether the Federal Reserve decides to rate interest rates further in 2016.

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Another measure of the employment situation used by economists is the ration of vacancies posted (v) to the number of unemployed persons (u). The v/u ratio measures labor tightness: A rising indicator means more businesses are looking to fill positions relative to the number of job seekers.

The v/u ratio had been rising since the end of the recession, but has slowed in recent months. It stood at 0.69 in November, the most recent figure available.

The nation added 151,000 jobs in January.

We need a 'Goldilocks' jobs number: Expert
We need a 'Goldilocks' jobs number: Expert