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Since the economy has been moving for quite a while now to full employment (at least as conventionally measured), I haven’t been monitoring the Labor Department’s data on job turnover (the “JOLTS” figures, per the acronym of its official label) as in years past. But yesterday I checked out the numbers reported yesterday morning, and see that this lapse has been shortsighted.

For the JOLTS data are still confirming that the purportedly red-hot, super-tight U.S. labor market is still under-performing according to a key measure – wages. Indeed, the new JOLTS numbers (for November) offer one important explanation: The job openings being advertised by businesses in low-wage industries are outgrowing those in better paying sectors.

The best way to show this trend is to look at the share of total non-farm jobs (the Labor Department’s U.S. employment universe) at key recent points in the business cycle that have been comprised of low-wage jobs, and compare them with the job openings figures at those times.

To remind RealityChek regulars and clue in others, my proxy for low-wage jobs consists of the retail sector, the leisure and hospitality sector, and the big low-wage portion of the professional and business services sector (e.g., janitorial services, landscaping services, call centers, bill-collection services, security services, and the like).

As of November, the hourly wages for these sectors, respectively, were (without adjusting for inflation) $18.28, $15.60, and $20.05. For the private sector as a whole, the hourly wage that month was $26.54.

When the Great Recession broke out, at the end of 2007, these parts of the economy combined represented 26.81 percent of total non-farm employment. When it ended, in the middle of 2009, this share had dropped only to 26.23 percent (by 2.16 percent) – even as overall payrolls dropped by 5.34 percent.

Since then, the low-wage share of all U.S. jobs has risen to 27.74 percent. And the JOLTS data tell the same story – especially during the ongoing recovery.

When the recession began, and low-wage jobs were 26.81 percent of total non-farm employment, they represented 31.94 percent of the job openings advertised by American employers.

During the recession, they were actually in less demand, in absolute and relative terms. In June, 2009, with low-wage jobs accounting for 26.23 percent of the total, such positions represented just 28.38 percent of total job openings. (My figure for the low-wage professional and business services positions is based on their share of jobs in that sector for the month in question. It isn’t broken out in the official JOLTS reports.)   

The results for last November (again, the latest available)? Low-wage jobs had grown as a share of total non-farm employment to 27.74 percent. But as a share of job openings, they had risen much higher – to 34.53 percent.

So because wage lag is still such a prominent feature of the American economy, I’m back on the JOLTS case. When the quality of job opportunities in the labor market starts showing sustained improvement, we’ll have grounds for believing that the long national nightmare of stagnant wages is ending.

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