Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Wages: The shadow hanging over the jobs market

Three big numbers from a big jobs Friday

For American workers, it's a familiar refrain: Jobs are plentiful but they don't pay very much. The unemployment rate is falling, but it's because the workforce is shrinking. The economy is growing, but the benefit distribution has been uneven.

The hallmark has been a relentless dichotomy that has provided cold comfort to the workforce, weighing on the minds of those whose wages have barely kept pace with inflation, manifesting in a wave of anger that has created a political climate perhaps unlike any the nation has ever seen.

So it's no wonder that away from Wall Street, Friday's nonfarm payrolls report didn't generate universal acclaim.

Read More Jobs report is strong, but Fed can wait on hike

In short, there was something for everyone — either for praising or for grousing.

The Alliance for American Manufacturing, for one, saw the loss of 16.000 jobs in the sector as further cause of concern.

A job seeker speaks with a company representative during a Choice Career Fair event in Seattle on Jan. 28, 2016.
Mike Kane | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"Working people in states like Michigan and Ohio feel the lousy manufacturing job loss and growing trade deficit with China, even if Wall Street and D.C. do not," said the organization's president, Scott Paul. "If you're wondering why there's so much interest in political insurgencies among both Democrats and Republicans this year, here's your answer."

Manufacturers are getting hammered in the heartland, where low-cost Chinese imports are crippling the steel industry and hurting workers like Jason Chism, who has seen about 2,500 of his co-workers laid off at the US Steel operations in Granite City, Illinois.

"These are all good jobs, good jobs with benefits where you can support a family," Chism, president of the United Steel Workers Local 50, said of the layoffs, which cut his unit from about 580 workers at this time in 2015 to 54 now. "These aren't your retail jobs that your college student is going to work while they're going to school."

He said it frustrates him to see rosy pictures painted of the jobs market.

"Absolutely," he said. "I don't think you'll talk to a person down here who's not worried whether they'll get the phone call telling them whether to come back to work or not."

Amid the uneasy job climate has come the rise of firebrand outsiders like Republican businessman Donald Trump and Democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a movement among both parties that traces its roots to some of the details that can be found in each month's payrolls release.

Yes, there were new jobs, and plenty of them — 242,000 of them, to be exact, well ahead of the Wall Street forecast for 190,000. The unemployment rate held steady at 4.9 percent, its lowest level since February 2008. And the low rate couldn't be attributed to an increase in the people who quit looking for work and thus weren't included in the headline number. In fact, the labor force participation rate hit a 13-month high as 555,000 new workers entered the force.

The dark side came in the details.

Many of the jobs were concentrated in lower-wage occupations, with fully 95,000 coming either from retail establishments or bars and restaurants. There were still six million Americans at work part-time for economic reasons — the underemployed — and average weekly wages actually declined 3 cents an hour, or 0.1 percent, translating to an annualized increase of just 2.2 percent. Also, weekly wages lost 0.7 percent on a monthly basis. That was the sharpest drop since at least 2006, according to Greg Daco, head of U.S. macroeconomics at Oxford Economics.

The 2.16 million workers unemployed for more than 27 weeks was 58 percent higher than just before the Great Recession began in December 2007. The average duration of unemployment was 29 weeks, its highest level since Mary 2014 and 68 percent higher than pre-crisis levels.

"With the unemployment rate as low as it is, people are forgetting about workers who have been unemployed for very extended periods as well as people who are still on the sidelines of the labor market," said Claire McKenna, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy organization. The long-term jobless figures, she said "are not evidence of a strong labor market."

A realtor reviews a listing before taking prospective home buyers on a tour of a house in Helotes, Texas.
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Wall Street, however, liked the payrolls numbers. senior analyst Mark Hamrick labeled it a "Goldilocks" report for being "not too hot, not too cold" and likely keeping the Fed on the sidelines for now. Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Michelle Meyer cautioned against reading too much into the volatile wage numbers, calling it a "solid report" that signaled "the return of the worker." Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at job search site Glassdoor, said the economy "is showing surprising resilience" and called the jobs report, in an interview with, "very positive."

Stocks staged a mild rally after the report, though it's always hard to tell whether equities are rising because economic strength will boost the broader picture, or if weakness will keep interest rate hikes at bay.

Indeed, how it all plays it with the most important audience, the Federal Reserve, remains to be seen. Traders cut the chances of a March rate hike to zero following the report, with December being the first month with a better than even chance of tightening.

McKenna said wage increases in the low 2 percent are unlikely to motivate central bank officials, who probably want to see something closer to 3.5 percent or even 4 percent before embarking on a steady rate-hiking cycle.

In the meantime, workers likely will be left with more headlines about job "growth" that hasn't quite made it to their paychecks.