The 5 most important job numbers to know right now

The economy is up and running, according to April's rosy jobs report from the U.S. Department of Labor: businesses are hiring, wages continue to rise and for people who want work, it's not impossible to get a job. 

But the long-term trends that have plagued the American worker since the 2008 financial crisis aren't going away, as the latest figures demonstrate. Here's what's behind the headlines.

Rock-bottom unemployment

The official unemployment rate was 4.4 percent in April. It hasn't been lower in 16 years, and has hovered below 5 percent since last May. A broader measure of unemployment, which counts discouraged and involuntary part-time workers, is at 8.6 percent -- its lowest point in a decade.

Slow wage growth

The hourly average wage in April was $26.19, just 2.5 percent higher than a year ago. That's actually a slowdown from recent months, when wages had been rising at a 2.7 percent clip. If there are truly as few unemployed people as other numbers suggest, businesses should be competing for workers and wages should be rising faster -- at 3 percent or even 4 percent a year.

What gives? One reason is that many jobs added over the past year, including in retail, food service and even some areas of health care, pay relatively little. 

"What you're seeing now is more minimum-wage type jobs," said Skip Aylesworth, a portfolio manager for Hennessy Funds. "As the market shrinks, wages will go up...  it's a question of how fast."


55,000 hospitality jobs

The leisure and hospitality sector grew impressively in April, adding 55,000 jobs. The vast majority of those -- waiters, cooks, hotel workers and others -- are paid just above minimum wage. Health care and social assistance added 36,800 jobs; that sector includes everything from well-paid surgeons and nurses to emergency medical technicians and home health aides, who earn but a fraction of what hospital professionals make. 

Low participation

The labor participation ratio, which measures people who are either working or looking for work, remains at a low 62.9 percent. Before the Great Recession, that number was 66 percent, but it hasn't yet approached that figure.

For some, it's a sign that people have given up on work. For others, it just means the workforce is changing. As older workers, who are a large portion of the workforce, retire, the workforce will make up a smaller share of the total population -- and that's just that.

"These days, the labor force participation rate is flat," said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor. "That means people are joining the labor force. People who were sidelined are joining, and they're replacing all the Baby Boomers who are retiring." 

Prime time

There is one bright spot for the participation rate, and that's in the prime age rate: workers who are between 25 and 54, which are considered peak years for productivity. For that group, the participation rate edged up to 78.6 percent -- a post-recession record.