American workers are poised in 2016 to finally get what they’ve been missing for years: higher salaries.
Even as the recovery from the Great Recession brought booming corporate profits, most workers’ salaries have barely kept up with inflation. But now, as the nation edges ever closer to full employment and with layoffs near historical lows, there are growing indications that ordinary workers are finally starting to reap some of the gains of the 6 1/2 year-old recovery.
A variety of wage and salary statistics — from payroll processors, private analysts and Federal Reserve researchers — indicate that the underlying rate of pay increase for workers has been picking up much more in the last year than commonly thought.
“We’re at a turning point,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at research firm Moody’s Analytics. “I think it’ll be a breakout year (in 2016) for wage growth.”
If average workers’ pay does rise significantly, it should give a nice boost to consumer spending, the key driver of U.S. economic growth. It should also increase consumption among lower- and middle-income households, providing a more balanced pattern of spending that for years has been skewed to wealthy households.
Economic growth next year is projected to remain moderate, but about half a point stronger than this year’s pace of a little more than 2 percent.
Moody’s estimated that the average pay for full-time workers who have kept their jobs grew 4.1 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier. That’s about double the hourly wage increase for all private-sector workers as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which produces the most commonly cited figures on workers’ earnings.
But the labor bureau’s report is based on aggregate data that include part-time and new workers, so the overall wage changes are likely to understate the gains of many existing workers. Moody’s relies on records of 24 million existing employees from the payroll processor ADP. And they exclude new hires who may be replacing higher-paid baby boomers retiring from their jobs.
A separate study of wages by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found a similarly improving trend: Median wage and salary growth, after hovering at about a 2 percent annual pace from 2011 through June 2014, has since risen to more than 3 percent, according to the Atlanta Fed. The growth was generally stronger for male and full-time workers, as well as those with college degrees. The median marks the halfway point.
It shouldn’t be surprising that wages are creeping higher. The labor market has been tightening across the country, forcing more employers to offer higher pay to recruit and retain workers. Thirteen states had a jobless rate of 4 percent or less in November, up from five a year earlier.
The jobless rate nationwide was 5 percent last month. Even big states and cities on the coasts with traditionally higher joblessness have seen sharp declines. California’s unemployment figure fell to 5.7 percent last month from 7.2 percent a year earlier.
At 2.3 percent, Iowa City, Iowa, shares the lowest jobless rate with Lincoln, Neb., and is one of 31 metro areas in the nation with a jobless figure of 3 percent or less.