Alex Gavlick, a 2015 graduate of DePaul University in Chicago, jumped into the American job market last spring with a degree in finance and an optimistic outlook on his odds of finding interesting work and drawing respectable pay.
From the view of myriad labor force analysts at the time and since, Gavlick’s timing is unfortunate on the latter front.
U.S. employers steadily added jobs over the course of 2015 and continue to do so this year — 215,000 positions in March and a monthly average of more than 230,000 over the past 12 months. But skeptics note that a closely watched measure of workers' earnings has not climbed commensurately, indicating underlying weakness.
Average hourly wages for those on private company payrolls in March climbed just 0.3 percent from the previous month and a modest 2.3 percent from a year earlier, to $25.43, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's latest employment situation report. Federal Reserve policymakers, in turn, have cited anemic compensation growth as a key reason to keep interest rates near historic lows.
That, however, is only one view explaining depressed wages.
Perhaps the job market actually is generating earnings growth, but policymakers are focusing too much on a data point that fails to account for major shifts in a workforce at once altered by the recession of 2007-08 and the onset of retirements among a massive baby boomer generation. These changes may make "average" a poor barometer of the true health of the overall workforce, some economists and analysts now argue.
"Changes in the composition of our labor force really can affect the weight we should give to average hourly earnings as we assess the overall strength of things," Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James, said in an interview.
The boomer effect
Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco contend in a March report that a unique confluence of changes to the workforce, as opposed to sustained underlying weakness, could indeed explain the recent sluggishness in average hourly earnings.
San Francisco Fed analysts Mary Daly and Benjamin Pyle, along with Arizona State University economist Bart Hobijn, write that "while higher-wage baby boomers have been retiring, lower-wage workers sidelined during the recession have been taking new full-time jobs. Together these two changes have held down measures of wage growth."
During the downturn, they explain, a disproportionate amount of lower-wage workers were laid off, while higher-paid, more skilled and often older staffers kept their jobs. This combination boosted aggregate wage measures at the time. So now, as lower wage workers rejoin the labor force in numbers greater than higher earners — and as baby boomers at the peak of their earning power move into retirement en masse — the process drags down the average and makes it appear that wage growth is poor.
U.S. Census data show roughly 65 million living boomers — those born in the years immediately following World War II through the mid-1960s — and they account for about a fifth of the American population.
But if economists look only at the continuously employed, the San Francisco Fed analysts contend, strength in wages is respectable.
Gavlick, the 22-year-old DePaul grad, said his experience anecdotally supports that thinking. He parlayed an internship at LinkedIn Corp. last year into a full-time job at the business-focused social network after graduation. He now lives in New York City, working in the company's sales development office.
Gavlick has gone from a part-time, roughly $10-per-hour job on campus during his college days to a full-time career that pays about three times as much and comes with a suite of benefits. His pay surely does not fully replace that of a retiring sales executive, but he is not complaining.
"I think it's actually a great time to enter the workforce," he said in an interview. He added that friends and former classmates report similar assessments. "I think the economy has healed enough" since the last recession "that businesses really are trying to invest in talented young workers."
'A poor indicator'
The San Francisco Fed analysts conclude that "sluggish wage growth may be a poor indicator of labor market slack." In fact, they write, "correcting for worker composition changes, wages are consistent with a strong labor market that is drawing low-wage workers into full-time employment."
In other words, after accounting for the larger-than-normal volume of retirees and new workforce entrants, wage growth appears on par with improvements in unemployment levels. The March jobless rate of 5 percent is half what it was following the 2008 downturn. When unemployment falls, pay tends to rise because employers often must boost compensation to attract and keep workers.
The San Francisco Fed analysts point to a wage tracker used by their colleagues at the Atlanta Fed as a preferred gauge of Americans' earnings, noting that it accounts for changes in workforce composition. It finds that the three-month moving average of median wage growth was 3.2 percent in February, the most recent month analyzed. That is better than the 2.8 percent average over the previous decade, indicating recent strength.
As the Fed analysts and other observers point out, no one gauge wholly measures the strength of the job market. Even as employers add full-time positions and certain measures find positive momentum in wages, reasons for concern remain. Relatively high levels of people remain under-employed, working, for example, in part-time or temporary jobs when they would rather have full-time or permanent work. The Labor Department's underemployment rate, which includes these workers, still approaches 10 percent. It had hovered near 7 percent during the 1990s economic boom.
Additionally, wage gains for ordinary workers are not keeping pace with corporate profits or the executive salaries of those running businesses, as BMO Private Bank Chief Investment Officer Jack Ablin pointed out in a report.
Citing the White House’s annual Economic Report of the President, Ablin noted that in 1970 employee compensation accounted for 59 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product, the broadest measure of economic output. Corporate profits, at the time, accounted for just 7 percent. By last year, employee compensation had declined to 54 percent, while corporate profits' slice of the GDP pie climbed to 10 percent, suggesting that American workers are not proportionately sharing in the prosperity of the companies for which they toil.
This, Ablin said, leaves experts in the nation's capital "troubled by rising income inequality" and pointing to "the disparity in fortunes between the holders of capital and the working class."
But there is no denying that more people are finding work, particularly over the past year. And many among them, including Gavlick of LinkedIn, say employers are increasingly hiring and willing to pay well for talented workers.
"There's growth opportunity, too," Gavlick said of his own near-term prospects with his current employer. "It's been a really cool experience so far."
Kevin Dobbs is a senior reporter for S&P Capital IQ and SNL Financial. He covers the banking system and financial markets. He can be reached at [email protected] and is on Twitter: @Kevin1Dobbs.