Hundreds of thousands of Americans are streaming back into an improving labor market as employers raise wages and hire less skilled job candidates to cope with an intensifying worker shortage.
The portion of the U.S. population working or looking for jobs — known as the labor force participation rate — has risen to 62.9% from 62.4% since September, Labor Department figures show. The rate had been falling since 2008, mostly because of baby boomer retirements, and that’s still expected to be the long-term trend.
Yet part of the decline was caused by a bruising post-recession job market that prompted discouraged workers to drop out of the labor force and many other unemployed Americans to retire, go on disability or return to school.
At least some of those idled workers are returning to work or looking again now that the jobless rate has fallen to 4.9%, a level many economists consider full employment. They’ve been drawn back by employers who are raising pay or becoming less selective..
“We’re just hearing a lot more openness” from employers, says Tim Gates, of staffing firm Adecco.
Wells Fargo said recently the rebound appears to be driven by the less educated, including discouraged workers who had been on the sidelines. Since September, the participation rate for college graduates with at least a Bachelors degree has dropped to 73.8% from 74.4%. The rate for other groups, including high school graduates and those with less than a high school diploma, has climbed at least half a percentage point.
Even so, their unemployment rate has declined, indicating that many of those returning are landing jobs despite increased competition from their peers.
Other groups are also coming bac, including retirees, the disabled and people in school, according to a Goldman Sachs analysis. Many are enticed by rising wages. Although average wage growth across the economy has been tepid at about 2% nationally, average earnings for private-sector employees in the same job at least 12 months jumped 4.1% in the fourth quarter, according to payroll processor ADP.
Companies are also getting creative. Adecco’s Gates says some manufacturers unable to find experienced workers are splitting jobs into two positions and hiring less skilled candidates for the simpler tasks. Others are bringing on unskilled workers and training them, a strategy rarely deployed when unemployment was elevated after the recession, says Becca Dernberger, of Manpower’s Northeast division.