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Labor outlook: 'It's just a very tough job market'

Galit Rodan | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Millions of Americans are off from work this Labor Day. But millions of others are off nearly every day because they have no job—or have given up looking for one.

"It's just a very tough job market now. There's no other way of putting it," said Daniel Opler, professor of history and a labor expert at the College of Mount St.Vincent.

"And the least skilled are in the toughest spot. It's a daunting task to find a job these days," he said.

According to a survey released last month by recruiting firm Express Employment Professionals—using Bureau of Labor Statistics data and its own findings—the number of Americans in the labor force, or those working or seeking a job, is at a 35-year low of 63.4 percent.

That translates into some 89.9 million Americans who are not working or seeking work.

This number might seem like a contradiction to the falling overall unemployment rate—from a high of 10 percent in October 2009 to a recent 7.4 percent in July.

But a big part of the decline is likely due to the millions who have taken themselves out of the job market, said Bob Funk, CEO of Express Employment.

"It's a tragedy so many people have given up looking for work, " he said. "It's older people and younger people that have in essence just thrown in the towel."

That's not to say there aren't jobs, said Funk, whose company's survey cited hard-to-fill positions like welders, machinists, engineers, IT professionals and even accountants and office managers.

"There's a skills gap for many people," he said. "We have hundreds of job openings but we can't find the people to fill them. They just don't have the training."

"We're finding even at entry levels, there's a mismatch of skills out there," said Sandy Mazur, a division president of staffing firm Spherion.

"I think we have to do more with training issues," she said. "It's becoming more difficult to find people with the right skills employers want."

'People are hungry to work'

Trained or not, those still looking for a job often find the competition fierce.

"People are beating down our doors to get jobs," said Bryan Scott, owner of Barn Light Electric, a porcelain light manufacturing firm in Titusville, Fla.

"With the cutbacks in the nearby Kennedy Space Center, we get 10 to 15 people a day walking in to fill out job applications," said Scott, who employs 100 workers and started his business in 2008, after working 25 years in law enforcement.

"People are hungry for work. We've hired those right out of high school and college grads and former space workers. A man who was a coal miner for 30 years is now head of our manufacturing," he said.

"Our turnover is low, especially for workers with families," Scott added. "They know they have to pay their bills, and we do our best to give them good working wages. Fortunately, our business has been growing so we can do that."

'Wages not going up'

But having a job has failed to guarantee a living wage for those who feel trapped in conditions that offer little in pay and benefits.

"I can't get any other job right now," said 53-year-old Melissa Roseboro, who was part of a day-long walkout for higher pay in May at the McDonald's she works at in Washington.

"And I can't support myself and my three kids on $8.33 an hour, which is what I'm making," said Roseboro.

"I don't have enough money to cover my food and rent. I have to bring home food that they give us from work," she added. "And I can only work 35 hours a week. They won't let me work more than that."

(Read more: Fast food strike gets super-sized over wages)


Jobs like Roseboro's are the backbone of whatever job recovery there is, according to the National Employment Law Project.

A report from the organization says that 58 percent of the jobs recovered from the recession are for low-wage positions that offer few if any benefits and have annual earnings below the poverty line for a family of four.

Higher-wage jobs make up only 20 percent of the job recovery.

According to a report from Economic Policy Institute, weak wage growth between 2000 and 2007, combined with wage losses for most workers since then, has left 60 percent of working Americans earning less now than 13 years ago.

"We're used to wages going up over time, but that isn't happening now," said Peter McHenry, a professor of labor economics at the College of William and Mary.

"Keeping wages low may make it cheaper for firms to hire, but it doesn't help households survive financially," he said.

"It was strong unions in the past that helped workers get better pay," said Opler. "But unions are much weaker now, and any kind of movement for better pay has to come from the workers themselves, as we're seeing with the fast food walkouts."

No easy fix

Remedies given to improve the job picture follow a somewhat complicated path.

"We've got to change our educational system," said Express Employment's Funk. "They have to wake up and realize the skills are not there. They need to be more flexible and realize other countries are ahead of us when it comes to educating their workforce."

"Businesses are nervous and, there's some validity to their lack of confidence in the economy and why they're not hiring, " said McHenry.

"They're worried about political economic fights in Washington and constant threats to shut down the government and all the regulations they face," he added.

(Read more: Here's what economists say is US' biggest worry)

It might even take improvements overseas to make things better at home, McHenry said.

"Europe's got economic troubles and China's growth has slowed, so markets for our products and services are at risk," he said. "That puts our job growth at risk, too."

Spherion's Mazur said the current workforce could determine what lies ahead for those seeking jobs.

"Consumer spending is key going forward," she said. "What happens in retail will be telling as to what happens in the job market."

Opler said the spotlight should shift from just creating jobs to focusing on the quality of jobs workers can get.

"We have to seriously think about what we mean by having an acceptable job," the history professor said.

"Fast food jobs can't support a family. We need to get people trained for good jobs with good wages, and that may take an economic plan like we had after World War II for Europe. We could use one here," Opler said.

Riding out the storm

Getting the government to provide more stimulus for a jobs plan is highly unlikely, some analysts say.

So for now and the immediate future, they say, it's more or less a matter of riding out the storm.

"I don't see a magic bullet to fix this, but I'm optimistic it will get better," said McHenry. "It's common to have a long recovery time after a recession."

"People are trying to pay down their debt, which is a good thing. When that eases up, there will be more spending and probably more job creation," he said.

"Things will get better, but I don't think we'll ever see 4-5 percent unemployment again," said Opler. "The way the economy and Washington politics are these days, it's just not going to happen."

—By CNBC's Mark Koba. Follow him on Twitter @MarkKobaCNBC