McFeatters: When a rising unemployment rate is a good thing

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A "Help Wanted" sign in the window of an automotive service shop in El Cerrito, Calif. (March 8, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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The May unemployment numbers would seem to indicate that the jobs market is marching in place. But hiring is actually improving -- not fast enough, though still on the mend.

The overall national unemployment rate rose slightly -- from 7.5 percent in April to 7.6 percent -- for a healthy reason: More people are looking for jobs. Three-quarters of job-seekers actually found them.

The civilian labor force rose by 420,000 to 155.7 million, with labor-force participation at 63.4 percent. The latter figure indicates the growth in population has outpaced the growth in available jobs.

The economy created 175,000 jobs last month, slightly better than the average of 172,000 over the last 12 months of recovery. As the Associated Press reported, government spending cuts "are weighing on the U.S. job market": The previously healthy manufacturing sector cut 8,000 workers, and the federal government dropped another 14,000.

Even as consumers faced sequester cuts and higher taxes, they spent at the fastest pace in over two years, boosting hiring in consumer-dependent industries such as retail and hotels and restaurants.

Much of the growth came from such lower-paying jobs. Although average hourly wages rose only a penny in May, to $23.89, mild inflation has boosted spending power. "Over the past 12 months, hourly wages have risen 2 percent. Inflation has increased 1.1 percent in that time," the AP said.

The less-than-robust employment figures were something of a tonic to Wall Street because it meant that the Federal Reserve would continue its $85 billion-a-month asset-buying program at least into next year, in the opinion of many analysts.

Employment needs to grow by an estimated 200,000 a month to reach a jobless rate of 6.5 percent in 2015. That rate would signify a nearly complete recovery -- and the Fed would begin pulling back on its asset-buying program.

In essence, the May figures were a Goldilocks number for Wall Street investors: strong enough to indicate continued recovery, but not so strong as to persuade the Fed to take its foot off the throttle.

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