Flip your burger and be happy, America

ZeroHedge looked at the stagnant February unemployment numbers – widely celebrated as evidence of an economy “coming back to life,” and hailed for solid “job creation” – and asked the question nobody in the media seems to find interesting these days: what kind of jobs are being created?

While not shocking to most, the jump in temporary workers that we cited earlier is perhaps the biggest indicator of job ‘quality’ gains. As we discussed here last month, the US  economy remains mired in a low quality (“first-fired, first-hired categories rather than the type of core hiring that would build a stronger foundation for income growth,”  as FTN’s Jim Vogel describes it) recovery. 

About 160k of private jobs added in Feb are ‘low-paying work’ which left average hourly earnings up only 0.1% (notes David Ader at CRT) – hardly the recipe for a sustainable recovery and perhaps the slow leak in stocks post the number is the rude awakening to that reality.

(Emphasis mine.)  In that previous discussion, criticism was leveled at how the Administration and its defenders “focus exclusively on the quantity of jobs, doctored or not, and completely ignore the quality.” 

ZeroHedge countered with an analysis showing the revenue from income taxes “declined in 2012 compared to 2011, on a per job basis, by roughly 1.5 percent.”  Not only does this have grim implications for the federal deficit, but it also suggests the “marginal quality” of new jobs is very poor.  People in existing jobs don’t accept pay cuts very often – it happens, to be sure, but it’s not prevalent enough to explain such a sharp dip in per-job taxable income. 

A more likely explanation is that our newly-created jobs tend to be temporary, part-time, or poorly compensated… and the high percentage of “low-paying work” packed into the February job creation numbers provides supporting evidence, as does January’s record-breaking surge in part-time workers.

The total employment gain for February 2012 was only 227,000 jobs.  Doesn’t it seem important to note that over 70 percent of them were “low-paying work?”  Especially when it takes between 150k and 200k jobs merely to keep pace with population growth?

The media used to be finely attuned to such concerns… back when they relentlessly hunted for black clouds amid the silver linings of George Bush’s low unemployment rates.  Figures barely half as high as Obama’s ostensibly wonderful 8.3 percent unemployment were subjected to intense criticism, because the Bush economy was supposedly riddled with “burger-flipper jobs.”  Remember that phrase?  How come you never hear it any more?

A healthy economy produces a large number of stable, long-term, full-time jobs, which allow workers to increase the value of their labor over time.  That’s a key difference between “burger-flipper jobs” and robust job creation.  Experience produces relatively little increased value to the employer for burger-flippers.  They remain easy to hire and easy to fire. 

Much better is the type of job where an employee’s value increases over time, allowing them to earn better pay and job security.  Such “good jobs” are the hallmark of an economy that is, to borrow one of President Obama’s recent slogans, “built to last.”  Growing companies with optimistic forecasts value the experience and reliability of their best human resources. 

A weak economy filled with nervous employers hires lots of “burger-flippers.”  In fact, as labor costs are pushed upward by government mandates, the burger-flipper type of job replaces the sort of entry-level opportunity for young and marginal workers that used to be associated with the term.  Flipping burgers is a fine opportunity for young people entering the workforce, but it’s not so great for older, educated workers with families to feed.  The current surge of low-paying and temporary work is much too large to be interpreted as the leading edge of a rebounding job market.  Instead, it has the feel of nervous employers grimly battening down the hatches, and trying to avoid the sort of long-term commitment most employees desire… and which would make good sense in a stronger economy.

President Obama invites you to flip your burgers and be happy, America!  Try not to think about the kind of jobs you should be getting.