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Jobs Report: Back to Where We Started

After more than six years, the U.S. private sector has at last regained the jobs lost in the Great Recession.

The economy added 192,000 jobs in March, the 42nd consecutive month of growth, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday. All the gains were in the private sector, pushing nongovernment employment to 116 million, just above the prior record set in January 2008, when the recession was just beginning. The private sector lost 8.8 million jobs in the recession and has gained 8.9 million since.

But the wounds of the recession are far from fully healed. Total payrolls remain more than 400,000 below their prior peak due to deep cuts in the number of government workers, especially at the state and local level. And the adult population (16 years and older) has grown by 14 million since the recession began, meaning the U.S. job market is nowhere close to fully recovered on a per-capita basis. The long-term unemployment crisis drags on, the legacy of what is by some measures the slowest recovery since World War II.

Nonetheless, the private-sector rebound marks a milestone, however partial. Here are a few other key nuggets from Friday’s report:

Solid growth: Some economists had predicted a monster jobs report in March after weak hiring to start the year. That didn’t happen: The gain of 192,000 jobs was pretty much consistent with the recent pace of growth. But it also turns out those early months weren’t quite as weak as initially thought; the government revised up its estimate for January and February growth by a combined 37,000 jobs. Taken as a whole, job growth is holding steady, neither accelerating nor slowing down.

Wages tick back down: Last month’s jobs report showed average wages jumping by 9 cents an hour, sparking a debate over whether the increase represented a one-month blip or an early sign that employers were being forced to raise pay to attract employees — a good thing for workers but also a possible harbinger of inflation. Friday’s report won’t resolve that debate, but it should ease inflation fears at least a little. Hourly wages fell a penny and are up a modest 2.1 percent over the past year.

The snow melts: Friday’s report does more to resolve another debate from last month’s report: how much of an impact winter weather had on the job market. The answer: a lot. With the snow melting in March, the job market began to return to normal. In February, 6.9 million full-time employees worked part time because of bad weather. In March, that number tumbled to 600,000. As a result, the average workweek — the number of hours worked by the average employee — fully reversed a three-month decline. That bodes well for hiring, because it suggests companies need more labor.

Good news in the labor force: The number of Americans with jobs — a different measure than the count of payroll jobs — grew by nearly half a million. But the unemployment rate held steady at 6.7 percent, as the number of unemployed workers grew slightly, too. That might sound bad, but it’s actually a good sign — the steep decline in the share of Americans working or looking for work has been one of the most worrisome trends in the slow recovery. Some 40,000 people re-entered the labor force to look for jobs, and the number of “discouraged workers” (people who have stopped looking for jobs because they don’t think they can find them) is down 13 percent over the past year. Both numbers are hints that the job market may be gaining enough strength to draw back in some workers who had given up.

Our usual caveat: The jobs report is probably the most important monthly economic report, but don’t take the numbers as gospel. The preliminary figures are routinely revised by tens or even hundreds of thousands, and the more detailed numbers have even bigger margins of error. The longer-run trends are more reliable, but treat any big claims — from this site or any other — with appropriate skepticism.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.