The post-World War II economy has never seen declines like that among younger workers, he said. Unless the university system is undergoing a remarkable and unnoticed expansion in graduate school programs, it bodes poorly for their future earning power and economic vitality.
"I hope that these young people are doing something to get better credentials, because if they're not, we have a real historical change here," Burtless said.
Yamarone pointed to another set of statistics. While the traditional payroll job market remains weak, the "informal economy" may be booming. The number of people identifying themselves as "self-employed" rose by 58,000 last month and 253,000 in the past two months, while those taking part-time side jobs for economic reasons increased by 75,000 in March.
The March numbers painted a mixed picture of the economy. In its survey of households, the Labor Department found a decrease in the number of unemployed people, to 7.7 million, and found that fewer of them had been out of a job for more than 27 weeks. But there remain 1.6 million people who say they want a job but cannot find one, about the same number as a year ago. Those people are not counted as unemployed because they did not actively search for work in the four weeks preceding the survey.
In its survey of employer payrolls, the Labor Department found job growth in construction, mining, health care, professional and business services, and wholesale trade. Construction employment rose by 26,000 in March, nearly a quarter of the nation's new jobs. Professional and business service jobs surged by 27,000.
Total payrolls have now climbed by 2.1 million jobs over the past 12 months and 3.1 million since they bottomed out in May 2003.
But manufacturing employment slumped by 8,000 jobs in March and is down by 24,000 in the first three months of 2005, compared with the final quarter of 2004. About 7,000 jobs were lost in March in the textile and apparel industries, job losses the industry quickly blamed on a surge of imports from China that followed this year's phase-out of global textile quotas.
Average weekly earnings nudged up $1.35 for the month -- or 0.3 percent. For the first quarter of the year, earnings are up just 0.5 percent, not enough to keep up with inflation, Burtless noted.
"It's fair to say the improvement in the labor market is still relatively modest compared to past expansions at this point," said William C. Dudley, an economist at Goldman Sachs & Co. "Hiring had started to pick up for awhile, but people are surprised that there has not much follow-through."