Sluggishness and Frustration
We need to do better. The recurring themes of inadequate recovery, sluggishness, and labor market challenges that are as deep as they are wide showed up in spades in the April U.S. jobs report. As economic growth appears to once again be slowing, the frustratingly tepid progress in a difficult employment picture continues. The fall in the unemployment rate to 8.1 percent during April, the lowest since January 2009, is certainly a welcome sign that modest economic activity is reversing the scourge of rising joblessness. But the underlying dynamics of the modest fall in the unemployment rate—from 8.2 percent in March—reflect all of the troubles that have plagued our job market recovery efforts in recent years. The civilian labor force fell by a significant 342,000 as the labor force participation rate, which has been in a structural decline since about 2000, fell yet again by 0.2 percentage points. The household survey reflects at best a mixed labor picture in April, with both the number of employed and the number of unemployed falling.
The payroll data for April are more than disappointing. The net gain of 115,000 non-farm payroll jobs is barely enough to absorb new labor force entrants and indeed the unemployment rate for reentrants to the labor force actually rose a bit. Clearly, the jobless rate would be far higher were it not for falling labor force participation, which, over the short-term, partially reflects little or no progress in diminishing the ranks of discouraged workers, those who have ceased even looking for employment. Gains in non-farm employment averaged 135,000 for March and April, a bit more than half of the 267,000 average for January and February. The exceptionally mild winter in 2012 along with the exceptionally severe winter of 2010 has made seasonal adjustment difficult. Nonetheless, in tandem with other data, the sharp slowdown in payroll gains draws a picture of an economy that just cannot gain any real growth traction.
Manufacturing continues to be a bright spot in the growth and jobs picture. But factory sector output growth has slowed, albeit from outsized gains during January and February. Job growth in manufacturing during April was far slower than that of the past four months. As usual, almost all of the gains came in durable goods. It is encouraging, however, to see a decent job gain in the furniture sector, perhaps a reflection of at least some stability in a housing market whose great troubles have badly impacted manufacturing.
Continued modest improvement in long-term unemployment testifies to the fact that even slow economic growth and labor market improvement will help those jobless who have been seeking employment for extended periods of time. But the very slow improvement perfectly captures the arduous journey ahead to real recovery. The average duration of unemployment spells fell to 39.1 weeks in April, down modestly from a peak of 40.9 weeks in November 2011, as the number of workers who were jobless for more than 27 weeks fell by 759,000 over the year.
Remarkably, the still historic high in long-term unemployment occurs as the recovery in hiring remains far weaker than the recovery in job openings. Employers need to see a skills upgrade in a workforce that is clearly not meeting the needs of a post-crisis economy. Many businesses are confronting long durations of vacancies in critical job openings. Both employers and the unemployed need faster economic growth to stimulate a labor market that still finds itself more than 5 million jobs shy of the pre-recession peak in payroll employment.