U.S. Jobs: December Numbers Down from November High

U.S. employment sank back into stagnation in the final frame of 2019.

It's almost eerie. In last month's reflections on the monthly jobs and unemployment numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics I said that it looked like 2019 might end on a high note — unless the December numbers were to come crashing down. Sigh.


I'm not sure a 43 percent dip month-over-month is any kind of crash, but November's revised 256,000 jobs added number clearly eclipses Decembers more paltry but still positive 145,000 jobs added. At the same time the three month trailing average dipped to 184,000 jobs added, well below the 200,000 figure that same average enjoyed in November, thanks to its momentary spike.


Given all these ups and downs in hiring, it's truly remarkable that unemployment remains fixed at 3.5 percent. At the same time, wage growth for 2019 ended at 2.9 percent, ahead of inflation (2.3 percent for 2019, according to the U.S. Inflation Calculator). With a nearly imperceptible real growth in average wages of 0.6 percent, that's barely enough to notice.


Where Growth Did (and Didn't) Happen


Retail trade bumped up by 41,000 jobs in December, as often happens in the final month of the holiday shopping season. Health care waxed by 28,000 jobs, with health care services responsible for most of that (+23,000) and hospitals coming in second at (+9,000; losses in other healthcare subsectors account for the apparent discrepancy here).


Leisure and hospitality nearly matched retail at +41,000 jobs; it grew steadily in 2019 at a rate of just over +32,000 jobs per month. Here again, a modest "holiday bump" is likely at work. Construction (+20,000 jobs) and professional and business services (+10,000) jobs showed some slowdowns, with monthly average growth rates of +12,500 jobs and +33,000 jobs per sector for 2019, respectively.


U.S. employment sank back into stagnation in the final frame of 2019.

Losers popped up in multiple sectors. Mining lost 8,000 more jobs in December, capping off a year-long decline in the sector of 24,000 jobs lost overall. Transportation and warehousing lost 10,000 jobs in December, against overall growth of 57,000 jobs added for 2019. Manufacturing lost 12,000 jobs in December, against more modest overall job growth in this sector of 46,000 jobs added for 2019.


Remaining sectors were flat, as has been the case for several years now, including wholesale trade, information, financial activities, and government (most notably information and government; the others have seen more volatility).


CompTIA's Take on IT Employment for December


CompTIA puts its IT employment eggs into two large baskets: IT Sector Employment (companies in the IT business) and IT Occupation Employment (IT workers in industries and sectors outside the IT business). It sizes the workforce for the IT Sector at just over 4.7 million, and that in IT Occupations at just over 5.2 million.


This produces an estimated 9.9 million workers in total. Thus, their finding of 3,500 new IT jobs added works out to a miniscule 0.035 percent growth rate. This falls well within the range of statistical noise, so the U.S. BLS team can't be faulted for calling the information sector "flat."


U.S. employment sank back into stagnation in the final frame of 2019.

That said, CompTIA did take some inspiration from a small gain of 1,500 jobs in technology manufacturing amidst that 3,500 jobs added estimate. Data processing and hosting accounted for another 2,100 jobs added (and again discrepancies in oversize gains are all too easily explained by offsetting job losses elsewhere on the IT employment landscape).


IT unemployment also continues at a rock-bottom level of 2.3 percent, according to CompTIA. Well and good, of course, though that is somewhat higher than the 2.1 percent rate it reported in December 2018).


Things Are Quiet on the Employment Front


All in all, things are mostly meek and unassuming on the employment front these days. Despite a quick injection of optimism in November, December's numbers could simply show a return to the more ho-hum status quo that prevailed for most of 2019, especially the second half of the year.


Let's hope that this old roller coaster, having now survived a noticeable dip, starts its way up a nice, long climb — so as to make the next drop that much more exciting, of course. Wouldn't it be nice if the climb managed to last more than a couple of months or longer? Only time will tell. Stay tuned!


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About the Author

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran who's worked as a software developer, technical marketer, consultant, author, and researcher. Author of many books and articles, Ed also writes on certification topics for Tech Target, ComputerWorld and Win10.Guru. Check out his website at www.edtittel.com, where he also blogs daily on Windows 10 and 11 topics.