U.S. Jobs: Slight Surge in January, But Long Road to Full Recovery Still Looms

The U.S. economy is still struggling to add jobs.

After losing 227,000 net jobs in December (adjusted downward from -140,000 in the latest report), the U.S. economy registered an itsy-bitsy uptick of 49,000 jobs for January. The size of that uptick is irrelevant, though, because it bucks the trend of diminishment that had carried on since May 2020, and pushed into negative territory last month.


But gosh! Let's say this represents a flattening of job growth — and it certainly appears to do just that. If that is indeed the case, then we've apparently got a long, long, loooong road to travel to regain the ground occupied before things came crashing down in April 2020.


That single month registered a loss of 20.7 million jobs, of which just under half — about 10 million jobs, according to NPR — have yet to bounce back. The good news is we didn't lost any more jobs in January. The not-so-good news is we didn't gain very many jobs (relatively speaking) in January, either.


The Basic Numbers, Please


Unemployment tailed off by 0.4 percent, from 6.7 percent in December to 6.3 percent in January. But with a modest gain of only 49,000 jobs for the month, it's clear that the "brick on the head" impact of the pandemic is still heavily weighing down job growth.


At the same time, the number of people unemployed for five weeks or less decreased, as did the number of people marginally attached to the labor force. These are also good signs. Employment levels are still 9.9 million less than in February 2020, before pandemic forces started reducing the size of the active workforce. The number of people teleworking also declined, to a 23.2 percent share of the workforce.


As you'd expect in a month with low growth numbers, some sectors gained while others lost jobs. Here's what that see-saw looks like. Gaining sectors included:


The U.S. economy is still struggling to add jobs.

Professional and Business Services — Up by 97,000 jobs (mostly in temporary help: +81,000 jobs)

Local Government Education — Up 49,000 jobs, with state government education gaining 36,000 jobs and private education adding 34,000 jobs (total +119,000 jobs)

Wholesale Trade — Up 14,000 jobs

Mining (a notoriously weak sector) — Up 9,000 jobs


The other side of the seesaw is also reasonably hefty, and nearly balances out the upside. It includes:


Leisure and Hospitality — Down by 64,000 jobs (much better than December's loss of 536,000 jobs)

Retail Trade — Down by 38,000 jobs in January (reversing from a December gain of 135,000 jobs)

Healthcare — Down by a surprising 30,000 jobs, which seems unusual because of the pandemic and because the sector has been evergreen for so long

Manufacturing — Down by 10,000 jobs

Construction — Down by 3,000 jobs


Other sectors were mostly unchanged, including information, financial activities, and other services.


Reading the Tea Leaves


The U.S. economy is still struggling to add jobs.

With a steady declines in monthly jobs added from May through November, a dip in December, and just a little bump in January, the trend is toward low growth/slow growth as far as the numbers can say. The only glimmer of hope comes from an increasing COVID vaccine supply, going into an increasing number of people's arms.


The Washington Post reports this morning that 28.2 million vaccine doses have been administered, to reach 22.8 percent of the prioritized population and 8.5 percent of the total U.S. population. As supplies and rates ramp up, the weight of COVID on the economy and employment should lessen. But it still looks like next fall (September or later) before some semblance of normalcy might assert itself.


In the meantime, low growth/slow growth looks be settling in as a "new normal." Most coverage of the latest Employment Situation Summary uses some language along these lines. The Post calls it "anemic," NPR says we're "not anywhere close" to recovering lost jobs just yet.


I concur. Further, I predict that when things return to where we have between 240,000 and 300,000 jobs added per month — a status that prevailed for some time before the pandemic struck — everyone will heave a huge sigh of relief. Including me.


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