The US economy added only 20,000 jobs last month, according to the Labor Department’s latest jobs report, marking a sharp slowdown from a streak of monthly gains in the hundreds of thousands. The unemployment rate, however, fell from 4.0 to 3.8 percent, while the number of people employed part time for economic reasons decreased by 837,000 to 4.3 million, following a sharp increase in January attributed to the federal government shutdown that month. The return of furloughed federal employees also contributed to the decline in the overall unemployment rate.
The number of new jobs fell far short of economists’ predictions, which were in the range of 170,000-180,000. Employment in fields like professional services and health care continued to increase apace with recent trends, but the construction sector cut 31,000 jobs and manufacturing added only 4,000. Employment in other industries like retail, leisure, and hospitality stagnated.
The contrast with other recent months is even more striking as the numbers of new jobs created in December and January were both revised upward slightly, to 227,000 and 311,000 respectively. This sudden swing from robust to lackluster job growth is difficult to interpret as it may signal a slowdown be just a blip in the data, the New York Times notes:
January’s payroll gains were exhilarating. February’s numbers were disappointing. Together they offer a potent reminder that each monthly employment report from the Labor Department captures just a moment in time. Longer-term trends are what matter, and the streak of job growth continues to set records. …
Still, as Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist of Northern Trust in Chicago, said: “This is a disappointing report. I don’t think there’s any way to sugarcoat it.” Rising wage growth is good for workers, but combined with soft payroll growth, he said, “it’s a signal we need to be cautious with the U.S. economic outlook.”