One of the big questions concerning the U.S. jobs market is how many jobs need to be created to reach full employment? Without knowing that, it's hard to determine when the nation's economy will have finally recovered.
Figuring out that number is complicated by several uncertainties, including just how many people need jobs and how many currently unfilled jobs actually exist.
The March jobs report released last week said 192,000 people found jobs last month, which means more people are now working in the private sector than were doing so at the pre-recession peak. During the Great Recession, the private sector lost 8.8 million jobs. Last month's job total means it has now added 8.9 million.
While this is good news, the U.S. still needs more new jobs because the working-age population has grown by nearly 15 million since January 2008.
However, the number of people participating in the work force has dropped in the past six years, for two main reasons. The first is demographics: The baby boomers are hitting lower-participation age (over 55), and more people between the ages of 16 and 24 are staying in school.
The second reason is the recession's impact on workers: Many people have dropped out of the work force altogether.
Economists are divided about how much of the decline either of these factors is responsible for.
"I think more than half is demographics (other research suggests about half, some suggests less)," economist Bill McBride wrote in his Calculated Risk blog last week. "If we just looked at demographics, the civilian non-institutional population for the prime working age group (25 to 54) has declined by 1.5 million people since Jan 2008! So ignoring the young and the old, we'd expect fewer workers today -- not more. That would be incorrect too since many people continue to work past 55 (and many young Americans still work)."
Despite March's increase in jobs, the official unemployment rate remained unchanged at 6.2 percent. This was because some people who had dropped out of the work force (presumably for economic reasons) have now dropped back in.
Another factor in figuring out how many jobs the economy still needs is the number of people who are working part-time even though they want to be working full-time. Last month, 7.4 million people were in that category, pretty much unchanged from the month before. The government's alternate "U-6 employment rate," which looks at labor underutilization, increased slightly to 12.7 percent from 12.6 percent in February.
What's really puzzling about this is that a lot of the jobs the country needs appear to already exist.
As of February, 4.2 million U.S. jobs were unfilled, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This puts the number of unemployed people per open position at 2.5 -- the lowest it has been since July 2008.
So, why hasn't the unemployment picture improved even more?
Several reasons. Some of it has to do with geography -- people aren't living where the jobs are. North Dakota currently has a 2.6 percent unemployment rate, which means the 700,000 people living in The Peace Garden State who aren't working are doing so by choice. Even so, not a lot of people are rushing to move there.
Another reason is a mismatch between jobs and skills. However, while low-skill retail job openings have doubled in the past three years, hiring rates haven't budged. Then there's the fact that businesses seem to have gotten pickier when it comes to hiring. In February, there were 158,000 more openings than a year earlier, but only 36,000 more people were hired.
While some of these positions are likely getting filled by internal candidates, some may not actually exist. A report by the Chicago Fed argues businesses are testing the waters by advertising these jobs but looking at the pool of possible candidates with no real intention of hiring at this time.One thing that's clear, though, is that the U.S. economy's employment picture is anything but normal.