2014: The Best Year for Job Creation This Century

White-collar jobs are leading the way in a potentially historic year for the U.S. economy, but wages still aren't growing.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

The U.S. economy added 248,000 jobs in September, pushing the unemployment rate to 5.9 percent, the first time it's dipped below the 6-percentage floor since July 2008—or more than 320 weeks.

One month is just one month, and, as always, these numbers are subject to dramatic revisions. But with January through September in the books, there is enough data from the year for economist Bill McBride to think about putting champagne on ice, if not quite popping the corks. The economy is "on pace to be the best year for both total and private sector job growth since 1999," he writes. The following graph compares our 2014 trend line with the last 14 years of job creation.*

The 21st Century, Ranked (thousands of jobs)

Economy is a plural noun. When we say "it" is doing well or poorly, what we are really saying is that a constellation of various industries, each growing at dramatically different paces, has a total rate of growth that corresponds with a certain adjective—booming, busting, crushing, collapsing, and so on.

So which industries are spearheading the best year for job creation of this millennium? It starts with professional and business services, that catch-all for white-collar work that includes lawyers, consultants, accountants, and managers of all stripes. Filling out the awards podium are two low-paying industries, food services and retail, in silver and bronze, respectively.

2014's Job Growth by Major Industry

Another way to study the cumulative effect of various industries on the overall rate of job creation is to measure the rate that they're growing rather than the total jobs they're adding.

Health care, for example, sparked growth according to that first graph. But the health industry—including doctors, nurses, and home heath aides—is actually growing slower than the overall economy for the first time in many years (see graph below). Mining, on the other hand, isn't a major contributor to jobs, particularly outside of a handful of energy states, but as an industry, it's expanding considerably faster than the rest of the economy. In the following graph, red industries are growing faster than the overall rate and blue industries are growing slower.

2014's Job Growth by Major Industry (%)

Pull back the lens to January 2008, the month after the Great Recession began, to see why it's so misleading to talk about "the economy" as a monolith rather than a bundle.

Health care added 2.1 million jobs in the six post-recession years, more than leisure, hospitality, professional services, and education, combined. Construction and manufacturing, however, are still wallowing in their own recessions. (As the previous graph showed, construction has been digging its way out of the trough for the last 12 months.)

The Two (or 12, or 20) Economies
McKinsey Global Institute

Good reporters will point out all the downsides of today's otherwise promising jobs report. The sleeping beast of inflation is still sleeping. Wage growth is dormant. The participation rate is still slipping.

So the labor force is partying like it's 1999, mostly on the strength of white-collar workers, cheap food services jobs, and the slow-and-steady growth of retail. Living through the "Best Year of Job Creation of This Century" might be a bit like finding the warmest ice pack in the freezer, but in this economy, there's no shame in settling.

*Although 2014 is on pace to create more jobs than in 2005, it's not clear that the labor force will expand at a higher rate, since the base number of jobs is higher.