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Jobs Report: First Impression

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A broadly positive jobs report just out for March shows that payrolls were up by 192,000 and both the labor force and weekly hours worked grew as well. The jobless rate was unchanged at 6.7 percent, but the closely watched labor force participation rate popped up two-tenths to 63.2 percent, as about 500,000 entered the labor market. Taken together, that's actually a good sign implying more people are being pulled into an expanding labor market.

With today's report, private sector employment has finally regained its pre-recession peak. Private payrolls peaked in January 2008, bottomed out in February 2010, and have added 8.9 million jobs since then. That means it has taken more than six years (Jan '08 - Mar '14) for private sector jobs to recover, an extremely stark reminder of the depth of the downturn and the weakness of what's been a plodding labor market recovery. And remember, simply getting the level of jobs back to where it was does not account for the growth of the working age population over this period. This milestone, while welcome, only symbolizes repairing the damage.

Also, government employment is still over 500,000 jobs down since the recession began in late 2007 and thus total employment remains about 400,000 below its pre-recession level.

Turning back to the March data, payroll gains of the prior two months were both revised up, adding a total of just under 40,000 jobs to the counts for Jan and Feb. That means that the first quarter averaged payroll gains of 178,000 per month, slightly below the average for last year of 194,000.

The uptick in weekly hours also indicates both some strengthening in labor demand and, if it sticks, should confirm suspicions that recent declines in weekly hours were driven partly by the distortionary impact of unusually cold weather on these data.

Job growth was wide-spread across industries, though manufacturing disappointed, down 1,000 last month and up only 72,000 over the year. While the sector accounts for about 9 percent of total employment, it only accounts for less than 4 percent of the job growth over the past year. Strengthening the factory sector, particularly through focusing on improving net exports, should remain a key policy goal.

It's particularly important to watch wage growth right now for a number of reasons. It's been an unbalanced recovery, with most of the growth eluding working families. This dynamic, in turn, holds back broader consumer spending and serves as a constraint on the recovery. Third, the Federal Reserve is carefully watching the wage picture for signs of any incipient pressure from the job market.

Over the past year, both average hourly pay and weekly earnings have been growing at about 2 percent (in March, they both grew 2.1 percent). That's ahead of inflation, which most recently has been quite tame, generally tracking below 2 percent on a yearly basis. That steady pace also provides no evidence of growing labor market pressures that would bleed into wage or price inflation.

In sum, the toplines from today's report reveal a labor market that continues to improve at a steady, though by no means a gangbuster, pace. We've finally repaired the damage, at least regarding private sector payrolls. Most industries, with the possible and notable exception of manufacturing, are expanding, employers may be expanding the average workweek a bit, and wage growth is steady, not that fast, and not accelerating.

Though there's certainly no trend there yet, the labor force grew last month, and if that keeps up, it will be an important sign that we're finally pulling more job-market-sideliners back into the game.

But there's still a lot of slack in the workplace and a long way to go until there's enough pressure/worker-bargaining-power to ensure a more equitable distribution of the fruits of growth.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.