When something happens once, it's a phenomenon. When something happens twice, it's a coincidence. When something happens three times, it's a trend. That's an old journalistic rule of thumb. And by that rule, February's employment report confirmed that we have a trend of decent employment growth.
The headline number showed that the economy created a net 227,000 jobs in February. When the economy began to create jobs in significant numbers, analysts frequently pointed out that a job creation rate of 150,000 per month was barely enough to keep up with population growth, and wasn't enough to make a dent in unemployment. Now we're finally getting that growth. February marked the third straight month in which payroll jobs rose by more than 200,000. Gains could be seen in a range of industries: professional and business services, manufacturing, and health care. The construction and retail trade sectors shed positions.
The job market is starting to look better now, and it's also starting to look better in hindsight. Every month, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the jobs figures, it takes another look at the numbers it reported in the previous two months. Looking back, BLS has determined that more jobs were created in December 2011 and January 2012 than originally thought. The December jobs gain, originally reported as a 200,000 gain in January, was revised up to 203,000 last month, and has been revised up again to 223,000. January's job total, originally reported as a gain of 243,000, was revised upwards to 284,000. In other words, BLS discovered an extra 61,000 jobs. Compared with February 2011, 2.021 million more Americans have payroll jobs. In the past two years, the private sector has created 3,938,000 jobs.
(Watch: The Daily Ticker's Aaron Task and Credit Suisse Chief Economist Neal Soss break down the numbers in the accompanying video.)
A few other takeaways from the report:
Back to Work. No matter how you look at the data, there are signs that Americans are going back to work in larger numbers. The BLS compiles unemployment data through two surveys. The establishment survey, in which BLS calls up companies and asks them how many people they're employing, produces the payroll jobs figures. The household survey, in which BLS calls people and asks them if they're working, produces the unemployment rate and a different measure of employment. In February 2012, BLS determined the number of Americans who were working was 142.065 million, up from 141.637 million in January 2012, and up significantly from 139.551 million in February 2011. That's 2.514 million more Americans working today than a year ago. In February, the labor force, the labor force participation rate, and the employment-to-population ratio all grew. They still remain at depressed levels. The U-6, an unemployment rate that takes into account frustrated job seekers and people who are working part-time but would prefer to work full-time, fell to 14.9 percent. That's high, but it's the lowest level since January 2009.
Conservative Recovery Continues. Earlier this morning, I suggested that this may finally be the month where the government sector stops being a drag on employment growth. Virtually every month for the past few years, federal, state and local governments have slashed jobs while the private sector has added them. In 2011, government cut an average of 22,000 per month. This trend has been dubbed "the conservative recovery." But the reports of recent months are suggesting that this activity is grinding to a halt. We're not quite there yet. In January, the government sector reduced employment by a mere 1,000 positions, and in February, governments cut 6,000 positions.
It's Good to Be the King. While the jobs picture is improving, employers still have the upper hand over employees. It's much better to be management than labor in an environment like this, when lots of people are still looking for work. Even as corporate profits continue to rise, companies aren't facing that much pressure to share gains with their employees. Average weekly earnings ticked up a smidgen in February, from $803.16 to $804.20 — that's about one-tenth of one percent. Over the past year, average weekly earnings are up just 2.5 percent, while average hourly earnings are up 1.9 percent.
In short, the February jobs report shows decent progress. The labor market is clearly improving, but it has a long way to get back to full health.
Daniel Gross is economics editor at Yahoo! Finance.
Follow him on Twitter @grossdm; email him at email@example.com.