WASHINGTON — Just how sturdy is the U.S. job market?
That's the key question the Federal Reserve will face when it decides later this month whether to reduce its economic stimulus.
The answer depends on where you look.
The economy has added jobs for 35 straight months. Unemployment has reached a 4½-year low of 7.3 percent. Layoffs are dwindling.
Yet other barometers of the job market point to chronic weakness:
The pace of hiring remains tepid. Job growth is concentrated in lower-paying industries. The economy is 1.9 million jobs shy of its pre-recession level — and that's not counting the additional jobs needed to meet population growth. Nearly 4.3 million people have been unemployed at least six months.
What's more, employers have little incentive to raise pay. Many unhappy employees have nowhere else to go.
Still, when it meets Sept. 17-18, the Fed is expected to reduce its $85 billion a month in bond purchases by perhaps $10 billion. Its purchases have helped keep home-loan and other borrowing rates low to try to encourage consumers and businesses to borrow and spend more.
Here's a look at the job market's vital signs as the Fed's decision nears:
The unemployment rate slid in August to 7.3 percent, its lowest level since December 2008. Unemployment had peaked in October 2009 at 10 percent and has since fallen more or less steadily. Since then, the number of people who say they have jobs has risen by 5.7 million. And the number of those who say they're unemployed has dropped by nearly 4.1 million.
That's the good news behind the tumbling unemployment rate.
But the rate has been falling, in part, for a bad reason: People are dropping out of the labor force. Once people without a job stop looking for one, the government no longer counts them as unemployed.
Some are retiring. Some are young adults who have chosen to go to college rather than brave a tough job market. Some have gone on disability. And some have given up the job search, discouraged by repeated rejections.
The percentage of people either working or looking for work — the so-called labor force participation rate — fell last month to a 35-year low: 63.2 percent. If the participation rate were at the pre-recession level of 66 percent, up to 6.8 million more people could be counted as unemployed. And the unemployment rate could be as high as 11.2 percent.
The 4 million-plus Americans who have been unemployed for six months or more are down from a peak of 6.7 million in April 2010. Yet before 2009, the United States had never seen long-term unemployment surpass 2.9 million, even during the deep recessions of the mid-1970s and early 1980s.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has called long-term unemployment a "national crisis" that's causing workers to lose skills.
Since the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, the American economy has added nearly 5.6 million jobs. Yet that hasn't been nearly enough to fill the hole left by the recession. The United States still has 1.9 million fewer jobs than the 138 million it had when the recession officially began in December 2007.
If hiring continued at August's 169,000-job monthly pace, the job market wouldn't return to pre-recession levels for almost another year.
And that's before taking population growth into account. Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, calculates that the U.S. job market is 8.3 million jobs short of where it needs to be to keep up with a growing population and reduce unemployment to pre-recession levels.
But job creation seems to be slowing. From January through April this year, employers added a robust 205,000 jobs a month. In the four months since, they've added only 155,000.
"Job gains are just not good enough," says Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors.
The jobs the economy is generating this year have tended to be low-paying, part-time or both. More than 654,000 — or 45 percent — of the 1.44 million jobs added this year come from three generally low-paying industries: department stores and other retailers; hotels and restaurants; and temporary services.
And nearly 60 percent of the jobs added this year have been part-time, though economists caution that the part-time employment figures are volatile.
The lower quality of the available jobs is one reason pay has stagnated. The average hourly earnings of private-sector employers haven't kept up with inflation since the end of the recession.
"More and more, America's jobs are not supporting America's families," said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, which advocates on behalf of low-wage workers.
LAYOFFS AND HIRING
The American labor market is divided between haves and have-nots. If you have a job, your position is safer than it's been in years. If you don't have one and aren't willing to settle for lower-wage work, the job search can be brutal.
Layoffs are averaging just over 1.6 million a month this year through June. That means the United States this year is on pace to have the fewest layoffs in Labor Department records dating to 2001.
The drop in layoffs has sharply reduced the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits. Over the past month, weekly applications have fallen to their lowest level since October 2007 — two months before the official start of the recession.
Yet while companies aren't cutting many jobs, they're in no hurry to hire, either. Total hiring has averaged 4.3 million people a month through June this year, before subtracting those who quit, retired or were laid off, the Labor Department says. That's 1 million fewer than the 5.3 million monthly average in the pre-recession year of 2006.
For every available job, there are three unemployed people — up from an average of just 1.8 before the recession.
Job seekers can testify to how competitive the market is.
Kelly Kloster, 23, was hoping to land a job — any job — in the film industry after she graduated with a degree in cinema and media arts from Southern California's Biola University in May. She sent out 100 resumes — and heard back from one potential employer. After a grueling interview process, she didn't get the job.
"I thought I got my degree so that I could get a job right out of college," she said by email.
Michael Magnum, 28, graduated from the University of Utah in May 2010 with a degree in finance. Unable to land a job as a financial analyst, he worked for a couple of years as a photographer. When he started looking again for a job in finance, he endured six more months of rejections and "dead-end interviews."
Eventually, he found work with a mortgage lender — for about 40 percent less than the $40,000 starting salary he'd been counting on.