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Hiring Really Is Slowing Down

There is no longer any doubt about it: Job growth is slowing.

U.S. employers added 38,000 jobs in May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday. That’s far short of economists’ expectations and marks the worst month for hiring since the jobs recovery began in earnest in 2010. The government also revised down its estimate for job growth in March and April by a combined 59,000 jobs. Altogether, the U.S. has added an average of 116,000 jobs per month over the past three months, down from 203,000 jobs per month during the same period last year.

Friday’s numbers probably overstate the extent of the slowdown. For one thing, a month-and-a-half-long strike among Verizon workers temporarily removed 35,000 workers from U.S. payrolls. (The strike ended this week, so the workers will be counted again in next month’s jobs report.) Moreover, it’s always dangerous to read too much into one month’s report. Job growth experienced similarly steep one-month dips at several points over the past five years but quickly rebounded each time.

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But even if May proves to be a blip, there’s no question that the overall trend in job growth has slowed markedly this year. Employers have added 2.4 million jobs over the past 12 months, down from the 3 million jobs that were added during the 12 months ending in April 2015. Other trends, such as a slowdown in temporary hiring and a recent spate of downward revisions (the BLS has revised down its initial estimate for hiring in each of the past three months), also point to a cooling job market.

The question, then, is what to make of the slowdown. There are two competing interpretations. The first is that this is an inevitable and even desirable consequence of an economy nearing full employment. The unemployment rate dropped to 4.7 percent in May, the lowest it has been since before the recession began more than eight years ago. That means there are fewer workers available to hire, so companies can’t add jobs as easily. Instead, they must either raise wages or hire people they otherwise wouldn’t consider — both good things for the economy as a whole.

The second interpretation is much less rosy: Job growth is slowing because the whole economy is slowing. That wouldn’t be too surprising: The current economic expansion is already one of the longest since World War II, and the U.S. has been a rare bright spot in a gloomy global economy. There have been other signs that the U.S. economy could be in trouble: Gross domestic product grew at a less than 1 percent rate in the first three months of the year, and economists are increasingly concerned about the possibility of a recession. That raises the troubling prospect that the clock could run out on the recovery before workers have seen much improvement in their paychecks.

Policymakers at the Federal Reserve will be weighing these two interpretations closely at their meeting later this month. If they think the recovery is on track, and that wages are likely to start rising more quickly, the Fed will likely raise interest rates for the first time since December in an effort to keep the economy from overheating. But if they see the jobs slowdown as a sign of trouble ahead, they will be more likely to leave rates alone at least until the fall.

Taken on its own, Friday’s jobs report provides more support for the second, gloomier interpretation. Wage growth was modest; the labor force shrank; more Americans were stuck working part-time because they couldn’t find full-time jobs. But those measures all look better over the slightly longer term. It will likely be months before it becomes clear how worried we should be about the job market. But it increasingly appears that the two-year-long hiring boom is over.

Here are a few more observations about today’s report:

A shrinking labor force: The unemployment rate tumbled to 4.7 percent in May from 5 percent in April, but the drop is no cause for celebration. The government only counts people as unemployed if they are actively looking for work, meaning the unemployment rate can fall either for good reasons (because people found jobs) or for bad ones (because they stopped looking). The drop in May was almost entirely driven by people giving up their job searches. The labor force — everyone who is either working or actively looking for work — shrank by nearly half a million people in May.

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The decline in the labor force for the second straight month was particularly troubling because it reversed what had been one of the most encouraging signs in the recovery: a rebound in the labor force participation rate. In March, I wrote that the rising participation rate indicated that the improving job market was drawing Americans back into the labor force. Now, the rate has given back most of its recent gains.

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Little progress on wages: Average earnings rose by 5 cents an hour in May, a respectable increase following a 9-cent raise in April. But there is little sign that wage growth is accelerating. Earnings are up 2.5 percent over the past year, a bit faster than inflation but disappointing given the falling unemployment rate.

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Good jobs, bad jobs: The number of Americans involuntarily working part-time jumped by nearly half a million in May, the biggest one-month increase since 2012. The increase could have been a fluke — the trend remains strongly downward — but it is consistent with other evidence that many of the jobs created in May weren’t “good jobs.” Full-time employment fell for the second month in a row, and the generally well-paying manufacturing, construction and energy sectors cut jobs, while the lower-paying retail and hospitality sectors added them. (The biggest gains came in health care, an industry that pays well on average but also employs many low-wage workers.)

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Ben Casselman is a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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