The strength of the job market is pulling people into the labor force, and the surge of workers pushed the unemployment rate
up slightly to 5 percent in March. Over the past six months, about 2.4 million workers began looking for a job or found one
already, according to government data. The gain represents the first sustained increase since the recession and the fastest
pace of growth in more than two decades, offering fresh evidence that the deep wounds of the downturn are finally healing.
"People are feeling good about where the economy is and are trying to get back into the labor market," said Chris Lu, deputy secretary at the Labor Department. "It's a very positive report."
In the long shadow of the recession, the share of the population in the work force sunk to 62.4 percent in September, the
lowest level in nearly 40 years. The government calculates that number by counting the people who have a job or are actively
looking for one. That means students, retirees and stay-at-home parents are generally not considered part of the labor force.
Indeed, the shrinking of America's workforce is largely due to broader demographic shifts. The labor force peaked at 67.3
percent of the population in 2000 and has been drifting downward ever since. The biggest driver has been the retirement of
Baby Boomers, who are turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 each day. Young people are also staying in school longer and less likely
to work during their studies.
But the contours of the work force are exceptionally blurry. The government estimates 1.7 million people are "marginally attached" to the labor force: those who would like a job but haven't looked in the past year because of school or family obligations or because they've simply given up hope of finding one. Some economists believe the number could be even higher. An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute estimates more than 2 million workers are missing from the labor force.
"You're dealing mostly with sociology and psychology, which economists like me have a hard time dealing with," said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo.
Often, the decision to step into the workforce is an intensely personal one. Brandon Jones, 39, of Chicago was devastated
when he was forced to shutter the catering business he launched in the midst of the economic downturn. Demoralized and facing dim job prospects, he decided to enroll in school instead. Last month, he completed his final class for his major in organizational psychology at DePaul University.
"Now I feel like I'm entering the work force a step above where I have been before," he said.
Jones has wasted no time trying to put his new credentials to use. He started sending out resumes two months ago for positions in human resources and has gotten one phone interview so far -- but no job offer yet. Even with a college degree, Jones is still confronting a highly competitive market and tepid wages. He expects his earnings to be on par with what he made as a clerical worker during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.
"Job prospects, they're there, but they also know that everybody is coming out of a down market," Jones said.
According to an analysis by Goldman Sachs last month, the biggest driver of the rebound in the work force is people like Jones
who are opting to jump into the job market rather than stay in school. There are also fewer people retiring or signing up
for disability insurance. In addition, the share of people who had given up hope of finding work declined as well.
Yet despite the improving outlook, workers re-entering the labor force will likely have a tougher time finding a job and could
be at a disadvantage in negotiating pay, experts say. Extensive research has shown that employers are more likely to hire
workers who already have a job.
In addition, an academic analysis of workers who were unemployed for at least six months during the last major recession in
the 1980s found that they made 30 percent less at their next jobs. Even after 15 to 20 years, their earnings were still 20
percent lower than that of their peers.
"There is a significant stigma, even today, with having big gaps in your resume," said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist
at jobs site Glassdoor. "People take it as evidence of being a lemon."
Recent research points to education as a key determinant for those joining the labor force. An analysis last month by Wells
Fargo found that those with some college education accounted for the bulk of the improvement in the labor force participation
rate since September. Meanwhile, separate research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City found that workers outside the
labor force who had at least some higher education were increasingly likely to move straight into employment last year.
Jones hopes his investment in education will soon pay off and said he is trying to be selective in applying for positions.
"I feel complete," he said. "I have a passport, I have a driver's license, I have a credit card. I have a bachelor's degree.
I feel like a citizen."
The return of workers to the labor force is a milestone for which economists have been waiting for years. Some had feared
many of those workers would remain lost in the cracks of the Great Recession. Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic
Policy Institute, said she is optimistic they can all be drawn back in, though the pace will likely be slower.
"Those sidelined workers will eventually come back," she said. "I believe that, but we need to see job growth be pretty strong
for quite a while longer."