The job gains came in lower than January’s eye-popping numbers, but reflecting ongoing resilience in the labor market, fueled by surging consumer demand in a variety of industries, especially leisure and hospitality and health care.
“The entire labor market is cooling off,” said Luke Tilley, chief economist at wealth manager Wilmington Trust. “But it’s still incredibly tight. It’s just not as tight as it was in the middle of last year or in 2021.”
For months, the labor market has shown signs of cooling, as demand for workers has gradually declined, with some exceptions, since last June. There were 10.8 million job openings in January, a small decrease from December, the Labor Department reported Wednesday. Layoffs in January rose to a high not seen since December 2020, in part reflecting the high-profile job cuts that have swept across the tech, advertising and media industries in recent months. Disney, Zoom, Yahoo and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp all announced mass layoffs in February.
Economists said January’s shocking job growth, adjusted down to 504,000, might have been skewed by seasonal adjustments, as employers in this tight labor market hoarded workers more than usual coming out of the holidays.
The resilient labor market comes as a blessing for many workers, affording many the ability to switch into better jobs and negotiate raises over the past year and a half. Average hourly wages rose by 0.2 percent between January and February. Overall pay is up 4.6 percent from a year ago, to an hourly average of $33.09 an hour.
However, the Federal Reserve could use the labor market’s strength to justify raising interest rates at a more aggressive pace than outlined just months ago, which Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell talked about while testifying before Congress earlier this week.
Inflation has fallen since reaching 40-year-highs last summer, but prices remain well above normal. A new inflation report to be released next week will provide more clarity on whether the Fed has made enough progress to continue slowing interest rate hikes.
The strength of the labor market is largely being propped up by booming consumer demand for services and experiences coming out of the pandemic. Some of the largest job gains in February were in leisure and hospitality, retail trade, government, and health care. Employment fell in information, transportation, and warehousing.
“There are reasons to be just bullish about the strength of the U.S. consumer propping up job growth for the foreseeable future,” said Julia Pollack, chief economist at Zip Recruiter. “Business-to-consumer companies are doing extremely well. Everything from hair salons to pizza shops.”
Despite the robust labor market, many workers are still struggling to make ends meet with prices that are growing at a faster clip than wages. The rising costs of basic necessities such as housing, gas and food are contributing to inflation.
Eduardo Romero, 60, an Uber driver in Los Angeles, said lately he often spends more than 50 hours a week driving for the company to take home around $1,000 dollars. He used to work about 40 hours a week, when he first started driving in 2017, but that’s no longer enough to afford basic necessities for him and his wife.
“The price of eggs and beans is so high right now,” Romero said. “I want to retire, but I’ve told my wife that I will have to work until I’m 70 to have enough to live on.”
Hiring has eased some for employers grappling with labor shortages, but the leisure and hospitality industry is an area where workers have unusual leverage. Employers are still struggling to attract workers. The industry, comprised of hotels, restaurants, bars, and casinos, had nearly 1.7 million unfilled job openings in January. Many people have left the industry for new careers.
Steven Majkrzak, the owner of five restaurant franchises in the Fargo, N.D. metro area, said he has had to change his entire employment model to attract workers, including offering signing bonuses, adding new tipping options, hiring younger workers, and raising wages by $7 an hour in some positions.
Still, one of his delis is currently operating with only 25 to 30 workers instead of the normal 45 to 50. The unemployment rate in North Dakota was 2.1 percent as of December, one of the nation’s lowest.
“The 18 to 26 age range has really almost disappeared from our workforce in North Dakota,” said Majkrzak. “Our strategy has shifted to hiring people outside of that demographic. We’ve resorted to hiring people as young as 14.”