U.S. hiring grew solidly in February as employers added 311,000 jobs. Unemployment rose to 3.6%.
Last month’s job growth, reported by the Labor Department on Friday, aligned with other evidence of resilient economic growth in the face of high inflation and rising interest rates. Payrolls advanced last month on a seasonally adjusted basis at a slower pace than in January, when employers added a robust 504,000 jobs.
Employers in leisure and hospitality, retail and healthcare snapped up workers last month, the Labor Department said. Transportation and warehousing, finance and manufacturing companies cut employees, while the tech-heavy information sector also shed jobs again, it said.
Average hourly earnings grew 4.6% in February from a year earlier, a cooling from last year but still above the prepandemic pace, the department added.
Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal had estimated that employers added 225,000 jobs in February and that the unemployment rate remained at 3.4%.
Other recent figures have pointed to a buoyant economy. Consumer spending jumped in January and inflation firmed. Business activity picked up in February. The Federal Reserve is closely monitoring February jobs and inflation figures as it decides how much to raise interest rates this month.
A hot job market has emerged as one of the biggest economic surprises among many twists since the Covid-19 pandemic hit three years ago. With the Federal Reserve aggressively raising interest rates to tame inflation, many economists had expected job gains would cool sharply or even turn into losses by now.
“The labor market’s definitely been stronger at this point than we would have thought maybe six months ago,” said Veronica Clark, economist at Citigroup.
Large parts of the economy—including restaurants, hospitals and nursing homes—are driving the growth. Those service providers were hit hardest by social-distancing measures at the onset of the pandemic. Now, nearly three years later, they are hiring at a rapid clip as they find it easier to recruit and fill openings.
The new jobs are more than offsetting cuts announced by large employers such as Google parent
Walt Disney Co.
There are signs that strong hiring could continue. Employers had 10.8 million open jobs in January, down slightly from 11.2 million in December. The totals are nearly double the number of unemployed people seeking work, and still far above prepandemic levels.
Staffing levels at Joe’s Real BBQ in Gilbert, Ariz., are up from a pandemic low in 2021, but the restaurant could still use more employees. That would help ease the workload for current employees, particularly on busy weekend days such as Super Bowl Sunday, when customers flooded in for St. Louis ribs, operating partner Tad Peelen said.
“We still feel the pinch,” he said. “If we had those 20 folks that I would love to hire, it would have felt a little easier.”
To help attract workers, the company has raised average wages to about $21 an hour from roughly $17 in early 2020 before the pandemic hit, Mr. Peelen said.
Broadly, wage gains have shown signs of cooling but remain well above their prepandemic pace.
Elevated wage growth is “a sign that the economy is still overheating and a real challenge for the Fed,” said
Beth Ann Bovino,
economist at S&P Global Ratings. “The concern is that when we see wage gains climb that high, that means that businesses then need to raise the price of their products.”
The Fed has been trying to slow investment, spending and hiring to combat inflation by raising interest rates. After holding the benchmark federal-funds rate near zero through much of the pandemic, officials lifted the rate more over the past 12 months than any time since the early 1980s, most recently to a range between 4.5% and 4.75% last month.
The economy’s recent pickup will delay Fed officials’ deliberations about when to pause rate increases, with officials and investors closely watching jobs and inflation figures. Investors are looking for clues about whether the Fed will raise rates by a quarter-percentage point, as it did last month, or a half-point, as it did in December. The next Fed rate policy meeting is March 21-22.
So far, companies in many industries—including housing and autos—have continued to hire despite higher interest rates.
Chris Ashcraft, owner of four Express Employment Professionals staffing offices in Alabama, Georgia and Florida, said auto companies including car manufacturers have a backlog of orders they are trying to fill as they recover from supply-chain issues. That is helping support their demand for workers, he said.
Mr. Ashcraft is trying to find workers for a range of companies including shipbuilders, electrical suppliers and steel mills.
“We haven’t heard anything about anybody laying people off,” he said.
Though recruiting for certain positions such as welders and machinists is difficult, more workers are seeking jobs now than earlier in the pandemic, he added.
At the start of this year, the share of workers ages 25 to 54 who are employed or seeking a job was just below February 2020 levels. Women have been helping propel the recent labor-force recovery as pandemic disruptions including virtual schooling and daycare closures fade.
Stronger rates of labor-force participation could help companies fill open jobs and counter fast-rising wages, better aligning the labor market with the Fed’s goal of lowering inflation.
Write to Sarah Chaney Cambon at email@example.com
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