Job growth surged in June, as U.S. economy clips along

Last Updated Jul 7, 2017 10:12 AM EDT

It's a good time to be job-hunting.

U.S. businesses added 222,000 jobs in June, blowing by forecasts of 170,000, while the nation's unemployment rate stayed essentially unchanged at 4.4 percent. The latest employment data from the U.S. Department of Labor show that the job market remains buoyant despite modest overall economic growth and gridlock on the White House's economic policy agenda. 

Hiring was also stronger in April and May, with employers adding 47,000 more jobs than previously estimated. Through June, the economy year has added an average of 180,000 jobs per month, compared with 187,000 for the year-ago period. 

While job-creation is healthy, wage growth continues to be mediocre, rising 2.5 percent year-over-year. By other metrics, wage growth was even worse. According to Glassdoor, a career services website, median base pay for full-time workers grew just 1.7 percent last month. That's less than inflation, which has increased 1.9 percent over the previous year.

"It's obviously good news, but it's puzzling too when you look at an unemployment rate of 4.3 percent or 4.4 percent and couple that with a lack of wage growth," said Philip Noftsinger, president of CBIZ Employee Services Organization. "We're kind of searching for that mystery inflation that we're not seeing."

CBIZ produces a small-business employment index, which showed hiring in that sector to be at its strongest level in eight years.  

At 4.4 percent, the U.S. unemployment rate is slightly below what most economists consider "full employment." In theory, that should sharply push up employee pay as businesses compete for workers. 

There are pockets of wage growth in certain industries -- in construction, for example, where there's a labor shortage. "We're not finding the skilled workers that you would normally have in construction jobs," said Matthew Dolly, director of research at Transwestern, a commercial real estate firm. 

But the nationwide average has remained modest, with wages today growing at the same rate they were eight years ago. Some economists say that's due to movement in the workforce, as high-earning baby boomers retire and are replaced with lower-wage workers, as well as people who are finally re-entering the labor force after the slow post-recession recovery.

Others point to parts of the workforce that remain troubled, like younger workers, many of whom exited the labor force after the 2007 financial crisis. 

"While most age groups have recovered fully or almost fully from the recession in terms of labor force participation rate, it's young people who are not fully recovered," said Cathy Barrera, chief economic adviser for ZipRecruiter. "Their numbers are significantly lower than pre-recession numbers. We haven't seen people aged 16 to 24 get back to work."

And as long as some people remain on the sidelines of the workforce, wage growth should remain muted.

"[P]eople continue to return to the labor force as jobs continue to be made available. This suggests that despite low unemployment, there is room for growth," said David Rosnick, an economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research.