After a long slumber, US wages begin to perk up

A Walmart department manager helps stock shelves with school supplies in San Diego.
Mike Blake | Reuters
A Walmart department manager helps stock shelves with school supplies in San Diego.

It's not showing up much in the averages, but the improving U.S. job market is beginning to generate long-awaited wage gains in industries that are hiring at the fastest pace.

A CNBC review of industry-level data finds that the strongest paycheck raises are hitting sectors that are posting significant job growth. Even relatively low-paying industries like retail, trade, leisure and hospitality are seeing above-average growth in worker paychecks.

On Friday, the latest monthly jobs data got a lukewarm reception from economists and investors, who had been looking for bigger gains in August than the government reported in its widely watched employment tally.

The Labor Department survey showed that employers added 173,000 jobs in August, lower than the 220,000 midrange of private forecasts. That pushed the official jobless rate to 5.1 percent. A separate measure that tracks people who have quit looking, or are working part time but want a full-time job, edged down to 10.1 percent.

As the jobless rate falls, most economists expect to see wages rising, as employers compete for new hires or hand out raises to keep current workers from leaving for a better offer elsewhere. Yet the job market recovery from the Great Recession has generated meager improvement in paychecks, leaving the average worker with little income growth after adjusting for inflation.

Read MoreJob creation slips in August, rate falls

But the latest read on wages in August held some promising signs that the drop in the jobless rate may be nudging wages higher. After posting weak gains earlier this year, weekly earnings rebounded at a 2.4 percent annual rate last month. Some economists see the bounce as the early signs of a longer-term trend.

"Gradually dissipating labor market slack will lead to firmer wage growth in the coming months," said Gregory Daco, head of U.S. macroeconomics at Oxford Economics.

And the average number of hours worked also has inched up, a further sign that the labor market may be tightening.

"Changes in hours are a good leading indicator for employment growth and also address one of the greatest areas of slack in the economy, which is the unusually large pool of part-time workers," said John Silvia, Wells Fargo Securities' chief economist.

That may be good news for American workers. But it further complicates an already difficult decision by central bankers at the Federal Reserve over whether to finally reverse a long-standing policy of pushing interest rates to the floor to spur economic growth.

Though Fed officials have long hinted that rates may begin to rise again this month, the timing has been complicated by conflicting economic signals and the recent gyrations in the stock market. Many investors fear that a recent sharp slowdown in China's economy could spell trouble for U.S. growth.

However, some economists believe that the latest job gains and uptick in wages confirm that the U.S. recovery is on track—and that the Fed should go ahead and pull the trigger on its plan to raise rates.

Read MoreJPM strategist to Fed: Just raise rates

"If the Fed doesn't hike rates in September because of concerns about global economic growth and financial market fragility," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, "it will look a little odd to be revising its forecasts for (gross domestic product) growth up and the unemployment rate down in September, and then still not beginning to normalize monetary policy," he added.