McDonald’s named Tuesday “national hiring day.” As with everything McDonald’s, it’s all about scale. In one day, the chain hoped to add as many as 50,000 people to its payrolls; worldwide, it employs 1.7 million, runs 32,000 restaurants and serves tens of millions of burgers every day. On one hand, this is great news: 50,000 jobs! On the other hand, 50,000 McJobs?
Indeed, the McHiringSpree raises the question: What kind of jobs has the recovery ginned up? The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers a host of month-by-month information on who is working where, for how much and for how long. The data show that a few industries are at or above their level of employment before the recession. The federal workforce is slightly bigger, once you factor out job losses at the Postal Service and ignore Census hiring. Employment is up in some niches, like computer systems design. And health care remains the nation’s strongest growth industry, with tons of new jobs for workers like home health aides and physicians’ office workers.
But the industries where employment remains below peak are too long to list — jobs remain scarce in the majority of subcategories, from logging to personal and laundry services. Alas, that is to be expected. The Great Recession sacked the entire economy. Demand remains low.
So it may be better to measure from the trough than the peak, looking for the industries that have had a jobs uptick since bottoming out. According to the BLS, a lot of sectors have seen a mild, tentative rebound. Businesses from railways to clothing retailers have taken back some of the workers they shed.
Despite the gains, though, it all adds up to a fairly bleak picture: The jobs we’re adding, for the most part, aren’t great ones. The National Employment Law Project took a closer look at employment and jobs-growth data in February. It says that just 14 percent of recent job growth comes from high-wage industries. About half comes from low-wage industries. Restaurants and food services businesses, “especially” fast-food outlets, made up 7 percent. The picture contributes to a larger story: The country has produced far too few stable, middle-income jobs over the past 20 years, not just the past three.
Harry Holzer, a Georgetown University professor, says the recession has distorted the jobs picture. “Early on in a recovery, a lot of the hiring is temporary and low-end,” he says. “In an uncertain labor market, it’s easier to hire those workers.” As the recovery strengthens, he expects the economy to add more and better positions.
For now, the economy will take any jobs it can get. Besides, those McJobs might be nothing to mock. Several McDonald’s executives started behind the counter. A low-paying job need not stay a low-paying job forever. And a low-paying job is decidedly better than none at all.
Lowrey writes about business and economics for Slate.