On Friday, the Labor Department reports on job creation and unemployment for March.
The consensus among economists: The economy added approximately 250,000 jobs and the unemployment rate held steady at 5.5 percent. This would represent a modest pull-back from February, when 295,000 jobs were added and the unemployment rate fell.
However, several anomalous factors could throw a wrench into March’s employment figures, like severe winter weather, a West Coast port strike and the rapidly strengthening U.S. dollar and plummeting oil prices.
Here are four things to look for in the March jobs report (click on each chart for more detailed information):
As the unemployment rate falls, are more people coming back into the labor force to try to find jobs?
Labor-force participation — that is, the percentage of adults working or looking for work — hasn’t been this low since the late 1970s. If people are entering the labor market after schooling, or coming back after they got discouraged in the recession, that’s a sign of deepening economic strength.
Are average hourly wages rising more than inflation? Are they rising at all?
Wages have been stuck for years, even as the unemployment rate has declined. Lower unemployment should theoretically make employers scramble to hire new workers, and offer more pay to get and keep them.
If employers don’t raise wages, it may mean there’s more “slack” (more competition for jobs) in the labor market than 5.5 percent unemployment suggests. It could be people waiting in the wings to come back into the labor market and people working part-time who want full-time work.
Are more people who say they can only find part-time work but need more hours to support themselves, finally landing full-time jobs?
This would indicate a tightening labor market.
Is the rate of long-term unemployment, which is still historically high after the Great Recession, gradually coming down?
If so, we may dodge a Europe-like problem of persistent long-term unemployment lasting years.
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