Employers added 339,000 jobs in May, strong growth that defied head winds


Employers posted a blockbuster 339,000 jobs in May, the latest sign that a booming labor market continues to prevent the country from slipping into a recession.

However, new warning signs also appeared in the economy, as the unemployment rate shot up in May to 3.7 percent from 3.4 percent, one of the fastest surges since early in the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data released Friday. Some 440,000 workers reported they are unemployed — and most of those were due to temporary jobs ending or layoffs, according to the data.

In particular, Black unemployment, which had reached a record low in April, increased by nearly an entire percentage point to 5.6 percent in May.

Overall, the May jobs report was good news, reflecting the 29th straight month of strong job growth that has come to define the pandemic recovery economy. Economists had predicted a much smaller number of jobs created, around 180,000.

For months, employers have churned out jobs at a rate that has baffled economists. And the labor market has propelled the economy through a barrage of forces that would normally weigh on jobs creation — steep interest rate hikes, bank failures and several rounds of layoffs in tech, hitting 200,000 workers this year, according to the tech layoff tracker Layoffs.fyi.

Hardy job gains in May were spread across a variety of industries including government, health care, construction, professional and business services, transportation and warehousing, and social assistance, as consumers have continued to spend heavily on services.

Average hourly wage growth slowed, rising 0.3 percent between April and May, up to $33.44 an hour. The Federal Reserve has closely monitored wage growth as a gauge of whether the economy has cooled enough to control inflation. Wages are rising faster than they have in years for earners on the lowest end of the wage scale, but overall wage growth is not keeping up with inflation, adding stress to Americans’ pocketbooks.

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“We are not currently in a recession, but we are likely to see one towards the end of this calendar year,” said Rand Ghayad, head of economics and global labor markets at LinkedIn. “The resilience and robustness of the U.S. labor market means the economy can absorb more Fed rate hikes than we previously thought.

Adults in their prime working age of between 25 and 54 are back in the workforce are back in the labor market at rates higher than back before the pandemic. And as of May, adult women in their prime working age were employed at rates not seen in two decades.

At the same time, the overall labor force participation rate, a metric that policymakers have charted closely coming out of the pandemic, changed little in May at 62.6 percent and is still 0.7 percent lower than its pre-pandemic level. Due to health concerns, aging, and child-care needs, some workers have been slow to reenter the workforce exacerbating employers’ need for labor.

Many economists are predicting a recession later this year, especially if the Federal Reserve keeps hiking interest rates to curb inflation.

“We’re really likely to experience some kind of contraction in at least the second half of 2023, but job growth has pushed back [our expectations],” said Matt Colyar, an economist at Moody’s Analytics.

There are many other signs that the labor market remains healthy. New applications for unemployment benefits, often an early predictor of recessions, remain low. And jobs openings unexpectedly soared by half a million in April, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Wednesday.

Beyond the labor market, there are other reasons for optimism. Consumer spending, which drives the U.S. economy, increased in April after two months of a slowdown, according to the Commerce Department. Congress passed a deal to avoid a catastrophic U.S. government default that might have triggered millions of job losses. And the financial markets have rebounded in recent months.

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Elise Gould, a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, said that the covid stimulus packages enacted by the government have helped create consumer demand that has carried the labor market through a storm of economic uncertainty.

Still, there are signs that the economy is cooling down. The U.S. economy faltered in the first months of 2023, growing at a lackluster annual rate of 1.1 percent. Manufacturing output has weakened, and credit lending — which gives employers more ability to expand and hire — has tightened up.

There has also been some evidence of cooling in the labor market. Unemployment insurance claims, though historically low, have risen by more than 25 percent since their low point in 2022.

Jobs openings have begun to fall in the service sector, including in leisure and hospitality and government, areas that were booming earlier this year. The rate of workers who quit their jobs fell in April, almost returning to its pre-pandemic levels, suggesting workers are less confident in their ability to switch jobs than they were last year.

Layoffs, although higher than a year ago, fell in April even as mass job cuts swept through tech companies, such as Meta and Lyft, making headlines.

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“The story is that the economy’s been weak and it appears it will get weaker,” said Joseph LaVorgna, chief economist at SMBC Nikko Securities America. “But there isn’t any obvious sign that the labor market is about ready to go off a cliff.”

Some industries are faring worse than others. For months, the transportation and warehousing industry has weathered slow job growth, but recovered some of its momentum in May, adding 24,000 jobs.

Coming out of the pandemic, consumers shifted their spending away from goods, such as online shopping, and infused their earnings into services, such as travel and dining out. Meanwhile, a supply chain crisis during the pandemic that created a backlog of demand has largely been resolved.

Amazon has canceled, closed, or delayed dozens of new facilities, and laid off thousands of corporate workers since last year. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Walmart, meanwhile, laid off more than 2,000 warehouse workers in April. Other logistics companies — large and small — have slowed hiring, and shrank their workforce by not filling openings as workers quit.

“Consumer demand for products has gone down,” said Patrick Penfield, a professor of supply chain practice at Syracuse University. “We’re seeing warehouses and trucking companies laying off people. Their goal is to try to survive a recession.”

Despite relatively concentrated pockets of cooling, American consumers and workers are increasingly pessimistic about the future of the economy. Consumer sentiment sank to a six-month low last month, according to a University of Michigan consumer survey. Job seekers have become more concerned about labor market conditions and their personal finances in the first quarter of 2023 than they were last year, according to ZipRecruiter’s job seeker confidence index.

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