Numbers about the labor market continue to send mixed messages. The unemployment rate is down to 5.9 percent, a level last seen in summer 2008. In contrast the employment-population ratio dropped from 63 per cent in early 2008 to 58.5 percent by fall 2009 and has not recovered since (still at 59.0 percent). So is the labor market back to full employment, as the unemployment data indicate, or is there still a significant excess supply of potential workers?
A key signal, many observers feel, is what will happen to wages as output expands. If those out of the labor force are really just like the unemployed, employers will be able to fill new positions without having to raise salaries. On the other hand, if those who have left are out for good and we really are near full employment, then salaries will need to increase.
It is too early to know which interpretation will turn out to be correct. Last week WSJ reported rising "manufacturing wages ... in some major industrial states as shortages of certain skills ... force more companies to pay up to attract and retain workers."
However, most jobs are in the service sector. When we hear about Walmart having trouble getting greeters and cashiers, we will know for sure that the labor market is getting near capacity.
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