It’s not just about the topline numbers

Executive Summary

The U.S. Labor Department’s monthly jobs report is closely monitored by investors, business executives and policymakers for signals about the direction of the world’s largest economy. While the headline numbers for job creation and unemployment draw the most attention, the report contains a raft of other data that provide important insights into the U.S. labor market.

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Resources for Further Study



Baumohl, Bernard, “The Secrets of Economic Indicators: Hidden Clues to Future Economic Trends and Investment Opportunities,” FT Press, 2012. An economist walks through some of the most important economic indicators used by decision makers and how those indicators work.

Eberstadt, Nicholas, “Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis,” Templeton Press, 2016. A conservative political economist investigates why, even as unemployment has fallen, the proportion of the population that is employed has also declined.

Karabell, Zachary, “The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World,” Simon & Schuster, 2014. A money manager and commentator examines the most significant indicators that economists and policymakers use to track financial health and argues that there are limits to how those figures can be used to manage the economy.


Carmichael, Kevin, “The Jobs Report Is Overhyped. Here’s Why That’s A Problem,” FiveThirtyEight, Dec. 8, 2017, A journalist argues that too many people follow the preliminary jobs report figures without keeping track of how those numbers are subsequently revised.

Casselman, Ben, “Making Sense of the Jobs Report: It’s Not Always Easy,” The New York Times, Feb. 1, 2018, A journalist provides a primer on what the jobs report is and why it matters.

Leonhardt, David, “For Wages, a Trump Slump,” The New York Times, Aug. 5, 2018, An economic columnist discusses recent trends in wage growth and why those figures are lagging other indicators that suggest the economy is strengthening.

Strain, Michael R., “The Economics and Emotions Behind Slow Wage Growth,” Bloomberg, July 9, 2018, A conservative economist explores some of the reasons that wages may not be growing despite a tightening labor market.

Reports and Studies

Baker, Dean, Sarah Rawlins and David Stein, “The Full Employment Mandate of the Federal Reserve: Its Origins and Importance,” Center for Economic and Policy Research, July 2017, A liberal group lays out the history of the Federal Reserve’s commitment to maximum employment as part of its dual mandate and calls on Fed officials to prioritize maximizing employment in setting monetary policy.

DeSilver, Drew, “What the unemployment rate does – and doesn’t – say about the economy,” Pew Research Center, March 7, 2017, A Washington research group examines the various definitions of unemployment and how that affects the figures reported each month.

Escobari, Marcela, and Sandy Fernandez, “Measuring American gig workers is difficult, but essential,” Brookings Institution, July 19, 2018, Researchers at a Washington think tank compare the methodologies used in a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report and a Fed study. Both attempted to measure the scope of work in the “gig economy” and to describe the challenges with capturing this population.

The Next Step

Labor Shortage

Bernton, Hal, “As Washington growers struggle with labor shortage, vote in Congress on farmworker bill remains elusive,” The Seattle Times, Aug. 6, 2018, A farm bill that would ease restrictions on foreign workers has stalled in Congress, hindering the productivity of farms in Washington state plagued by labor shortages.

Kusisto, Laura, “Young People Don’t Want Construction Jobs. That’s a Problem for the Housing Market,” The Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2018, The construction industry has experienced a massive decline in available workers in the last decade due to a variety of social and economic factors, resulting in fewer houses being built and higher prices for existing homes.

Talbott, Bruce, “Our fruit is rotting in the trees as laborers are kept out of the country,” The Washington Post, Aug. 24, 2018, Farmers are facing increasingly severe labor shortages because complications with the immigration process are preventing new workers from filling positions, says a Colorado peach grower.

Wage Stagnation

Galston, William A., “Wage Stagnation Is Everyone’s Problem,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 14, 2018, To combat wage stagnation, policymakers should expand the earned-income tax credit and adopt wage subsidies for lower- and middle-income earners, says a Wall Street Journal columnist.

Long, Heather, “In U.S., wage growth is being wiped out entirely by inflation,” The Washington Post, Aug. 10, 2018, Despite outward signs of a strong economy, including the lowest unemployment rate in years, most workers are seeing only minimal wage gains.

Noguchi, Yuki, “Solving The ‘Wage Puzzle’: Why Aren’t Paychecks Growing?” NPR, Aug. 2, 2018, Economists are struggling to understand the underlying cause of paltry wage growth, offering explanations that range from the decline of unions to greater spending on benefits in lieu of pay – or that stagnation might not be as dire as it appears.


Aspen Institute
1 Dupont Circle, N.W., Suite 700, Washington, DC 20036
A global think tank that studies the gig economy, among a host of other economic and policy issues.

Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce
3300 Whitehaven St., N.W., Suite 3200, Washington, DC 20007
An independent policy institute that researches the labor market and the workforce.

Mercatus Center
George Mason University, 3434 Washington Blvd., 4th Floor, Arlington, VA 22201
A conservative, market-oriented think tank that studies regulation, financial policy and monetary policy.

Third Way
1025 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20036
A center-left think tank that examines the economy, the labor market and trade.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Postal Square Building, 2 Massachusetts Ave., N.E., Washington, DC 20212-0001
A Labor Department agency that conducts employment surveys and produces the monthly jobs report.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680427.n1