We Added Tons of Jobs in April, but the Labor Force Still Dwindled

Fed Chair Janet Yellen, captured in a convenient “good news, bad news gesture.”

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Happy jobs day everybody! First, the good news: the BLS reports that the economy added 288,000 jobs in April, which “crushed expectations,” as Business Insider put it with typical understatement. Better yet, the totals for February and March were revised up, so we now appear to have added 200,000 jobs or more for three straight months, which is all the more impressive (and slightly puzzling) considering that the economy barely grew over the winter.

Standard disclaimer: This month’s jobs total will also be revised, as will the last quarter’s GDP figures. As with all jobs day stories, consider all of this provisional.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate tumbled 0.4 points to 6.3 percent. That’s where the iffy news comes in—much of the drop happened because the labor force shrank by 800,000, driving the participation rate down to 62.8 percent. It hasn’t been that low since 1978, when women were still in the process of joining the workforce. Just look at that ugly graph below (And I mean that both as an economic and aesthetic judgment. The BLS really needs to work on its charts).

According to BLS spokesman Jason Kuruvilla, a relatively normal number of Americans left the workforce. The problem was that an unusually low number cycled back in, so participation dropped. It’s not, however, entirely clear if that’s the result of a weak job market. Kuruvilla said the result might have had to do with the timing of the Easter holiday, and the fact that BLS performed its survey early. Overall, partciipation has been essentially the same as in October of last year.*

The upshot: It seems like a jobs report to feel good about, but not quite one to feel great about.

*Correction May 2, 2014: An earlier version of this story incorrectly argued that the labor force shrank primarily because adults gave up on looking for work.