U.S. employers added 217,000 non-farm jobs in May, and the overall economy surpassed its pre-recession employment peak, recovering the estimated 8.7 million jobs lost during the two-year downturn, according to the monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics report released Friday.

Unemployment remained steady at 6.3 percent, a decline of 1.2 percentage points over the past year.

Food services and drinking places were among the top industries showing job growth in May, along with professional and business services, health care and social assistance, transportation and warehousing, the report said.

The foodservice industry added 31,700 jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis in May, for a total of 311,000 jobs added in the past year.

Restaurant operators remain optimistic that job growth will continue, said Bruce Grindy, the National Restaurant Association’s chief economist.

According to the NRA’s May Tracking Survey, 25 percent of operators said they expect to employ more people in the next six months than they did during the same period last year, while only 10 percent of operators said they plan to cut positions.

“In addition to representing a two-year high in the proportion of restaurant operators anticipating staffing gains, it was also the strongest net increase (+15 percentage points) in expected job growth since May 2012,” Grindy added. “Both full-service and quick-service operators are reporting plans to expand staffing levels, which suggests that restaurant industry job growth will continue to be broad-based in the months ahead.”

For the industry, it was the 51st consecutive monthly gain for a total of more than 1.3 million jobs, according to the National Restaurant Association.

For the economy overall, May marked the fourth consecutive month showing job gains above the 200,000 level on a seasonally-adjusted basis, Grindy said.

“In addition, the overall economy has now surpassed its pre-recession employment peak, with growth exceeding the 8.7 million jobs lost during the Great Recession,” said Grindy. “The private sector surpassed its pre-recession peak in March, with the downward trend in public-sector jobs representing the difference.”

Economist Paul Ballew of Dun & Bradstreet told USA Today that the labor market is picking up momentum, which will translate at some point to wage increases.

For the restaurant industry, higher wages could boost lagging consumer spending, a key factor that could help turn around declining traffic trends.

Still, Ballew noted the recovery remains uneven.

Stronger job growth was reported in education and health services and professional and business services in May, but the results were more modest for blue-collar industries, such as the manufacturing and construction.

“It’s a quality game much more than it is a quantity game,” said Lindsey Piegza, chief economist at brokerage firm Sterne Agee, in a Los Angeles Times article.

“We’re really not seeing that high-wage recovery that is indicative of a strong consumer lining their pockets with wages and going out and spending,” she said.

Contact Lisa Jennings at lisa.jennings@penton.com.
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