While it's true the recovery has brought about more jobs, not everyone is feeling the benefit.
The post-recession years have been notably stingy when it comes to heftier paychecks for workers, while some groups, such as younger workers and minorities, continue to suffer from elevated unemployment rates. That has left many workers wondering when they'll see a raise, while others are still searching for full-time work.
The good news, according to economists, is that 2016 is on track to bring about some improvements for the rank-and-file. Wages have barely budged because of a trend that's most likely invisible to the average eye: "slack." That refers to working-age Americans who have been underemployed but are now reentering the job market, thanks to rising hiring.
The underemployed, many of whom are working part-time but want full-time jobs, aren't included in the unemployment rate, which means the group represents an invisible glut of workers. That's one reason wages haven't seen much improvement: This pool of sidelined workers means employers haven't had to boost pay to find new hires.
But that might change in 2016, given that the improvements in job creation and hiring in 2015 has taken some of the slack out of the labor market, economists note.
"If we keep adding jobs at a decent pace, it will eat away at slack in the market," said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. "Workers will have more ability to bargain for higher wages."
The country will inch closer to what LPL Financial calls the "elusive" full-employment range, a term that signifies when an economy is in balance, without any cyclical unemployment as well as a level of jobs that won't cause inflation. Interestingly, "full employment" doesn't mean an unemployment rate of 0 percent or that everyone who wants a job will have one.
But if the labor market reaches full-employment range, employers will need to increase wages to keep their workers, LPL Financial said in a research note. The organization of independent financial advisors pointed out that wage pressure is already emerging and should pick up speed in 2016.
While the national unemployment rate stood at 5 percent in November, some regions are already experiencing much lower unemployment rates, such as Lincoln, Nebraska, where the jobless rate stands at 2.3 percent. The Midwestern city may offer a taste of what the rest of the country could experience in 2016: With tight labor market there, wages jumped almost 11 percent this past summer, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Others agree that higher wages are on tap for 2016. Real wages for U.S. workers should increase by 2.7 percent next year, outpacing the forecast for a 2.5 percent boost in real global wages, according to employment firm Korn Ferry.
Still, not all sectors are created equal. The energy industry has taken a hit this year because of the plunge in oil prices, which led exploration and extraction companies to cut almost 103,000 jobs through November, according to consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
On the flip side, thousands of baby boomers are retiring each day, which could create more opportunity for younger workers. But CEO John Challenger warned that despite the improving economy, workers can't afford to breathe easy yet.
"This does not mean finding a job will be easy in 2016. Employers are still being selective and the hiring process is taking longer, as a result," he said in a statement.
As for the country's lowest-paid workers, 2016 may continue to bring additional relief. While the push to raise the federal minimum wage has stalled out, several states and municipalities will see hikes to the baseline wage, thanks to inflation and cost-of-living adjustments. Fight for $15, the labor activist group that advocates for a $15-per-hour minimum wage, is also pledging to continue pushing for higher baseline wages next year.
"We are doing better than we were five years ago in terms of the sheer number of Americans who can find employment," EPI's Gould said. But in other aspects, the economy still has room to improve, such as reaching young workers and minorities. She added: "A full-employment economy would really reach all of those margins."
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