Private sector employment levels have reached their 2008 peak, but it's still tough out there for the unemployed.
FORTUNE — Private sector jobs finally surpassed their previous peak in 2008, according to March’s jobs report. The data bore some cheery news this morning, but it’s hard to get too excited once we take a closer look.
While the total number of jobs in the economy remains below its pre-crisis peak because of large drops in government employment in recent years, the fact that private sector employment has recovered is a symbolic milestone showing the strides the economy has made since the darkest days of the financial crisis. But just because we’ve reached that milestone, and because the BLS announced Friday morning that the economy added a pretty healthy 192,000 jobs in March, doesn’t mean the employment recovery has reached escape velocity. Going forward, here are three reasons to be concerned about the jobs picture:
1. Average hourly wages fell in March: The best news in the February jobs report was that Americans saw a pretty big jump in their pay — 9 cents per hour on average. If that trend had continued for a year, that would have resulted in a more than 4% annual increase in wages, well above expectations for inflation. Instead, this measure took a step backward in March with average hourly wages falling by one cent to $24.30 per hour. Rising wages will have to be a part of any meaningful, healthy recovery, as higher wages enable workers to spend more in an economy driven by consumer purchases.
2. The unemployment rate(s) are stuck in neutral: After steadily falling throughout 2013, the standard measure of unemployment has remained stuck around 6.7% since December. The same goes for the broader measures of unemployment like the U-6 rate, which also includes folks who are working part-time but want a full-time job, and those who have given up looking for a job out of frustration. While that figure has also declined significantly from last year, it has been stagnant so far this year, and actually increased in March from 12.6% to 12.7%.
3. There was no springtime bounce in the numbers: Economists had blamed a lot of the weak economic data that came in over the winter on unseasonably cold weather across much of the U.S. That’s why they didn’t fret too much over the sharp decline in job growth we saw in December and January. The reason why weather-related weakness isn’t something that you should worry about, however, is that the data tends to overcompensate once the weather warms again. Folks might be kept home from work or delay big purchases because of the snow, but eventually they’ll get back to business. But jobs numbers today didn’t really show a bounce-back in data as much as a return to the previous trend. Therefore, the average job growth we’ve seen in 2014 (178,000 per month) trails the job growth we saw last year (194,000 per month).
All in all, this wasn’t a bad report — the fact that the labor participation rate increased slightly is a great sign, while continued job growth in the construction industry is good news for those expecting the real estate market to power the economic recovery in 2014. But anyone taking too much solace in the fact that private payrolls have reached new highs should be aware that significant challenges for the labor market remain.