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National News

March jobs report shows strong labor market with job gains in health care and government

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by Casey Quinlan, Wisconsin Examiner
April 8, 2024

The sturdy labor market continued to chug along in March, with an unemployment rate of 3.8%, marking the 26th straight month of an unemployment rate under 4%.

The economy added 303,00 jobs, according to the monthly report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday. Economists, researchers, and policy experts say that the strong but no longer hot labor market should be encouraging news for the Fed as it decides whether to cut rates after a long campaign to fight inflation.

Aaron Sojourner, an economist and senior researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a nonprofit research organization headquartered in Kalamazoo, Michigan, said the labor market is “strong and healthy.”

“It’s remarkable that the economy added over 300,000 jobs at this point and job growth seems to be accelerating,” Sojourner said.

Which sectors are adding jobs?

Health care and government continued to add jobs in March, with the two sectors adding above their average monthly gains, at 72,000 and 71,000.

Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, an economic policy think tank based in Washington D.C., said government is a sector economists will be looking to see more growth in education jobs. She added that public sector workers can fuel private sector employment growth as well.

For the first time, hospitality and leisure has returned to its pre-pandemic level after adding 49,000 jobs. Researchers and economists took this development as a good sign for the economy and for workers. Gould said it was a “great milestone” but also noted that many sectors have already hit that level and more.

Sojourner said it may be a good sign that it took this long for leisure and hospitality to return to this employment level.

“The fact that it didn’t immediately recover is in a sense, good news, because a lot of people found better opportunities outside the sector and employers had to raise wages and the quality of the jobs that they were offering in order to attract people back to the sector,” he said.

Construction also added about double the average of monthly jobs it added over the past year, at 39,000 jobs.

Skanda Amarnath, executive director of Employ America, a policy research and advocacy group with a headquarters in Washington D.C., said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what drove that rise in jobs. The CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, and bipartisan infrastructure deal have supported employment in construction. Residential construction has been “reasonably robust,” he said. But these jobs could also be tied to a rise in hiring for construction in the spring months.

What do experts make of Black people’s rising unemployment rate?

The last four months of jobs data has shown an increase in Black people’s unemployment rate, from 5.2% in December to 6.4% in March. Black women’s unemployment rate was 5.6% compared to 4.4% last month and 4.1% a year ago. Black men had an unemployment rate of 6.2% versus 6.1% in February and 5.1% a year ago.

Gould said the uptick in the unemployment rate for Black people is concerning to her, because it has happened for a few months now, but not yet alarming because of the volatility in the data collected.

“I think that it’s something that we need to watch,” she said.

Sojourner agreed that while more data is necessary, it’s important to keep an eye on the unemployment rate for Black Americans, particularly if it’s an indication that Black people are having difficulty finding jobs rather than a sign of more people entering the labor market and looking for work.

He added that the effects of a recession tend to hit Black people before other groups.

“That’s very concerning because often you’ll see, Black Americans are on the leading edge … The recessionary stuff hits them first,” he said.

What does prime age employment tell us? 

The prime age employment-population ratio, which measures the share of the working-age population, or 25- to 54-year-olds, who are employed, is also pretty high this month, at 80.7%. In April 2000, it reached an all-time high of 81.9%.

Amarnath said this is encouraging news.

“Right now we’re operating at levels that are especially high. Ideally, they can continue to move higher through the year, but these are levels that prior to the last 12 months we haven’t seen since I believe, more than 20 years ago …,” he said. “You think of [prime age employment] as being the best way of evaluating how many people are employed, adjusting for the aging of the population, adjusting for changes in participation.”

Are we seeing healthy wage growth? 

Wages have continued to outpace inflation, at an increase of 4.1% over the past year. In March, they rose 12 cents or 0.3%. The wage growth numbers, as well as the number of jobs added, show a steady job market but not one that is threatening the Federal Reserve’s attempts to bring down inflation, Gould said.

“When I look at those wage growth numbers, I think it’s pretty clear that is continuing to normalize very much in line with Fed targets as the inflation rate continues to come down. I think we’re in an economy that is getting where we wanted it to be and, I think, what the Fed is looking for as well. We’re seeing strong job growth, and that’s promising. More people are coming back into the labor force looking for opportunities,” she said.

This story is republished from Wisconsin Examiner under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.