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On Main Street, jobs numbers miss the real story

Demonstrators supporting fast food workers protest outside a McDonald's as they demand higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation Monday, July 29, 2013, in New York's Union Square.
John Minchillo | AP
Demonstrators supporting fast food workers protest outside a McDonald's as they demand higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation Monday, July 29, 2013, in New York's Union Square.

Nobody needs to tell Krystal Maxie-Collins that it's tough to make a living these days—she lives it every day.

While the monthly unemployment numbers suggest a healing jobs market, workers like Maxie-Collins plod along in menial positions that leave them barely enough money to keep food on the table.

This week, she decided she had enough and joined a growing number of workers getting paid minimum wage or slightly above who have joined the "Fight for 15" movement.

Strikers in at least four states are trying to unionize and force companies to pay $15 an hour for positions such as retail and fast food.

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"I'm a single mother of four. I pay bills and provide for my children, provide for myself, the best way I know how. The cause was definitely something I felt was worth it," said Maxie-Collins, 29. "I wouldn't have to worry so much about which bill to pay now: Do I get clothes? Do I get food? Do I pay the light bill? Am I going to be late with my rent?"

Maxie-Collins works in the shoe department for the Chicago Macy's store and recently got a raise and more hours—from $8.25 to $8.50 and from part-time to full-time.

It's a bit of an improvement, but far from enough for her or the other strikers in similar positions.

She joined the strike Thursday, for a day, to protest conditions.

"I was very touched by the fact that so many different people from many different cultures, backgrounds, economic statuses, educational statuses, were here on the strike all having the same problems," he said. "We have the same issue with our jobs, the way we're getting paid, the fact that we're having a difficult time making ends meet with the wages we're getting paid."

The latest jobs report from the government helps exemplify their story.

While the economy added 162,000 jobs in July, wages and hours worked actually edged lower and the job quality remains suspect, even as the unemployment rate ticked lower to 7.4 percent.

(Read more: So-so summer: Job growth disappoints; rate drops)

More than half the positions—85,000 in all—came in either retail jobs like Maxie-Collins' or in the leisure and hospitality industry. That's been a trend repeated month after month in the recovery from the financial crisis and looks unlikely to end soon.

"What we see in the job market reports for the last couple of months just does not tell the story as to what's really going on beneath the surface," said Mike Hard, CEO at BountyJobs.

Hard's firm hosts an online platform that allows companies to manage the use of headhunters—those professional recruiters who help companies fill open positions.

What he sees is a two-speed jobs market: A great one for skilled professionals who already have jobs and are looking to progress up the ladder, and an awful one for those out of work, who haven't been employed in a while and are trying to crack their way back into the labor force.

Companies are expected to spend $8 billion on headhunters in 2014, with the most active industries manufacturing, healthcare, financial services and technology.

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"If you're a passive candidate now, meaning you have five to seven years of experience and you have a job already, the companies are falling all over themselves to find you," Hard said. "If you're actively looking, then there are thousands of people just like you."

That's the story beneath the government jobs numbers—an economy trying to maintain traction while Wall Street stock market indexes like the S&P 500 prosper and Main Street workers struggle.

Friday's jobs report, in fact, missed expectations, but stock losses were minimized as investors believe monetary policy will remain accommodative enough to fuel corporate profits and underwrite share buybacks.

"The whole Wall Street expectations theme annoys me a little because there's little relevance to what's happening in the real economy," said Brian Hamilton, chairman of Sageworks, a financial analysis company that monitors employment trends. "The guy running the dry cleaner or the running the pharmaceutical company doesn't care what Wall Street thinks."

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Hamilton worries that the current four-year expansion is nearing its limits, as the average post-recession recovery lasts 58 months.

That could spell bad news for job seekers.

"My fear has shifted to if we only have another year of growth, and let's say we stop out at a 7 percent unemployment rate," Hamilton said. "What happens if we go into another recessionary cycle?"

By CNBC's Jeff Cox. Follow him @JeffCoxCNBCcom on Twitter.

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