More Americans are working, but pay is still low

December 6, 2013, 11:18 PM UTC

FORTUNE — The U.S. economy added jobs at a steady pace in November, helping push the unemployment rate to a five-year low, according to the government’s monthly jobs report released Friday. More Americans are working, and the data suggests that the quality of jobs is improving, as more of the positions created are in industries that pay higher wages.

The unemployment rate fell to 7%, as employers added 203,000 jobs. That’s slightly more than the 180,000 per month created over the previous six months. And more of those new positions are in middle-class jobs in construction and manufacturing than during the past year.

For many months now, higher-wage employment had been missing from the economic recovery. Middle-wage jobs in construction, manufacturing, and information accounted for more than half, 60%, of the nation’s jobless workers from the beginning of 2008 to early 2010. The job market has turned around since, but those fields represented only 22% of total jobs growth during the post-recession recovery, according to an August report by the National Employment Law Project.

What’s more, lower-wage jobs, with median hourly wages of $7.68 to $13.83, accounted for only 21% of job losses during the downturn but have accounted for more than half, 58%, of all job growth. Jobs that saw the fastest growth were retail sales positions (at a median wage of $10.97 an hour) and food preparation workers ($9.04 an hour). Since June 2009, each of those fields has grown by more than 300,000 workers.

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November showed some signs of improvement (if not hope) as the economy created slightly more middle-wage construction jobs and slightly fewer lower-wage jobs in retail and foods services. However, jobs in higher paying industries, such as financial services, changed little.

Here’s a breakdown:

In November, employers created 17,000 jobs in construction, which paid an average of $26.23 an hour. That’s slightly more than the average of 15,000 jobs we saw over the past 12 months. The economy also added 27,000 manufacturing jobs, which paid an average $24.81 an hour.

Also in November, employers added 18,000 jobs in food preparation, less than the 28,000 a month over the past year. The economy added 22,000 retail jobs, which is less than the average 34,000 jobs a month since March.

These are positive signs, but it’s only one month’s worth of data, and there’s a glut of middle-class jobs the U.S. lost during the Great Recession. So it’s worth watching what types of jobs are created in the new year.