We Added 1.6 Million Jobs in 2011— Where Did They Come From?

With the release of this month's unemployment report, we now have a chance to take full stock of what happened to the U.S. job market in 2011. In this politically tumultuous year, employment crawled upwards. Slowly.

Overall, total non-farm employment inched higher by roughly 1.6 million jobs, or about 1.3%. The private sector grew modestly. The public sector shrank, also modestly. The United States economy is still about 6 million jobs short of where it was before the beginning of the Great Recession. And while the unemployment rate is down to 8.5% from 9.4%, it's partly because so many workers have given up on job hunting.

That's the Cliff's Notes version. Beneath the headline figures, America's employment picture is vastly more complicated. If you were a white, or college educated, or in the oil business, odds are you had a fabulous year. For African Americans, high school drop-outs, teachers, and 19-year-olds looking for work, the numbers told a very different story.

A Great Year For Oil Workers, A Terrible Year for Teachers

In 2011, the fastest growing industry sector by employment was mining. By a longshot. Jobs in logging and mining as a combined sector increased by 12.4%, but virtually all of that growth was due to mining -- coal, oil, and gas extraction, as well as the support activities around them. Thank the oil boom in North Dakota and the hunt for natural gas in Appalachia's shale deposits. As you can see in the graph below, no other major industry saw even close to that rate of growth.

But while mining's growth was dramatic, it only contributed a small piece to 2011's overall employment bump -- about 91,000 new hires. The largest boost came from business services, a hodge-podge category encompassing a wide variety of white collar employees. Its growth was powered by increased demand for highly educated workers such as engineers and architects, computer systems designers, and accountants. Administrative support positions, including roughly 90,000 new workers in temp agencies, also made up much of the growth. Other important pieces of the job growth puzzle included health care and social assistance, which added 350,000 workers, and the hospitality businesses, which added 230,000 workers in food services alone.

It's part of an evolving split in the American workforce: On the one hand, we're growing high-skilled jobs in offices and hospitals. On the other, we're producing low-wage service jobs. There's not a ton being created in the middle. Even this year's manufacturing growth only reclaimed a small portion of the millions of factory jobs lost to the economic downturn.

The gloomiest portion of this chart, however, is reserved for government hiring. In a year without the cushion of stimulus spending, local, state, and -- yes -- federal government employment rolls all shrank, shedding a total of 280,000 workers. Public schools let go 113,000 workers alone. To put that in perspective, the loss of government jobs eclipsed the entire growth of manufacturing and construction combined.

A Bad Time to Be Young, or Without A College Degree 

More than their industry, however, the most important factor affecting workers ability to get hired in 2011 was their education. At Slate, Matt Yglesias posted this chart showing that more than half of the jobs added went to Americans with a college education. High school graduates, meanwhile, lost half a million jobs.
Beyond education, the next great divide in 2011 remained age. For women and men over the age of 20, the unemployment rate was about 8%. For those aged 16 to 19, the unemployment rate was 23.1%, down from 25.2% a year ago. For black youth, the unemployment rate was a staggering 44%, down from 42% a year before.

Overall African American unemployment refused to budge during the year, staying at exactly 15.8%. The slimming of government payrolls may be the major culprit since, as the New York Times has reported, one in five black workers is a public sector employee. Whites and Hispanics, meanwhile, saw unemployment drop from 8.5% to 7.5% and from 11.0% from 12.9%, respectively.

The jobs numbers in 2011 weren't spectacular for your group, no matter where you fit into the jobs picture. But your age, education, and industry made a huge difference.