U.S. Jobs: Upward Employment Surge in February

The U.S. economy may be starting to blossom again.

Listening to the news earlier this week, I heard at least one dismal-sounding forecast for the latest U.S. jobs numbers from an independent employment tracking firm. In fact, its guesstimate was fewer than 100,000 new jobs. Following last month's initial report of only 49,000 jobs added, I'd been thinking: "We might be stuck in the swamp."


Surprise! This morning's report came in at 379,000. The January numbers were also revised upward by 117,000 for a new reported total of 166,000 jobs added. However, December was dropped by 79,000 to 306,000 jobs LOST for that month — so it's not all sunshine and roses.


Adding up all of those numbers, the quarterly total for December, January, and February comes to collective job growth of 239,000. That's roughly 80,000 jobs per month over the past three months. It's still not great, but a) it is a positive number, and b) it's higher than I thought it might be based on preliminary and apparently too-pessimistic forecasts.


Thus, I have a feeling that the US economy has somehow dodged a bullet, and is on the mend, if somewhat slowly and anemically. We went into negative territory in December (and more deeply than originally reported) but have been clawing our way back into the black ever since.


Even by pre-pandemic standards, a net gain of 239,000 new jobs from February (modified by the revised data regarding January and December) is an acceptable monthly jobs number, if still a bit on the lower side of a more usual distribution.


Where Did Jobs Grow and Decline? 


The U.S. economy may be starting to blossom again.

To keep things in perspective, it's still the case that overall employment is down by 9.5 million jobs (6.2 percent) from pre-pandemic February 2020 numbers. One year later — February 2021 — most of the new job growth comes from the sectors most severely impacted in March and April of 2020. Perhaps this reflects the assertion that what goes down must also come back up.


Thus, most of February's gains came from leisure and hospitality, with smaller bumps in temporary help services, healthcare and social assistance, and retail trade and manufacturing. Most everything else was flat or, if it dipped, did so only slightly. Here are more details:


Leisure and hospitality grew by 355,000 jobs, of which 286,000 (nearly 80 percent) came in food services and drinking establishments. Accommodation increased by 36,000, and amusements, gambling and recreation grew 33,000.


Within the professional and business services sector, temporary help services grew by 53,000 jobs.


Healthcare and social assistance increased by 46,000 jobs in February, of which healthcare employment accounted for 20,000, while ambulatory health care services increased by 29,000. Nursing care facilities jobs dropped by 12,000, but social assistance grew by 26,000, of which 18,000 went to individual and family services.


Retail trade increased by 41,000 jobs in February, spread across general merchandise stores (+14,000), health and personal care stores (+12,000), and food and beverage stores (+10,000). Clothing and accessories stores, however, dropped by 20,000.


Manufacturing jobs grew 21,000, most in transportation equipment (+10,000).


Government education jobs continued to shrink in February with 37,000 jobs lost in local government education and 32,000 lost in state government education. These February losses cut back January gains.


The U.S. economy may be starting to blossom again.

Construction in February dropped by 61,000, owing at least in part to a series of brutal winter storms that affected much of the country during the month.


Mining lost 8,000 jobs in an industry that's been up and down, but mostly down, since its recent employment peak in January 2019.


Other sectors were mostly flat, including wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, financial activities, other services, and our own home sector: information. Wages likewise were slightly enough positive that they could also be considered "mostly flat."


Overall, at Least a Ray of Hope � or Perhaps More?


The Washington Post apparently shares my "dodged a bullet" assessment. Their coverage summary for this latest report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reads: "Reflecting an economy that is still very much bogged down by the pandemic, the job growth surpassed analysts' estimates but remains below the rate needed to regain the more than 9 million jobs lost since last year."


That said, when you're at least half-dreading bad news, lukewarm news doesn't really feel or seem all that bad. My best guess, based also on greatly improved COVID infection and death rates, is that things will keep improving in the months to come.


And indeed, the speed and slope of growth is likely to be the inverse of those things — namely, the faster infection and death rates decline, the faster jobs will return. With vaccinations finally building some momentum, that means we'll know more about how quickly and well recovery can proceed unfettered by COVID around June or July.


On the other hand CompTIA's analysis of the latest jobs report, with its more-or-less-exclusive focus on IT, is much more upbeat. The title of this morning's press release is a pretty good indicator: Strong Signs for IT employment in Latest US Jobs Report, CompTIA Analysis Finds. CompTIA reports +7,700 new jobs in IT for February along with this surprising comparison:


"The unemployment rate for IT occupations remains at 2.4% compared to 6.6% nationally for all occupations." They also cite IT occupations expanding by 178,000 jobs in February, with a total of 277,000 "employer job postings for open IT positions." That's reportedly a 12-month high, which takes it back before the pandemic, interestingly enough.


Tim Herbert, Executive Vice Presidents for Research and Market Intelligence at CompTIA, sees this as a marked transition from "wait-and-see hiring mode" in IT to "three recent months of tech employment gains [that mean] we're likely seeing that pent-up demand translate to new hires."


The U.S. economy may be starting to blossom again.

I take this to mean that while things are improving across the whole job market only slowly, and in fits and starts, things are improving more steadily and markedly in what CompTIA calls "IT employment." That means (a) jobs at companies in the information sectors, which specialize in building, delivering and servicing information technology platforms, tools, and so forth, and (b) jobs in IT departments (or related functions) at other companies whose business focus may be broadly characterized as "something else outside IT."


This makes things look more positive for current and aspiring IT professionals that the overall outlook indicates. All I can say is "Good!" And because IT is something of a harbinger for the overall economy, what's good for IT in the short run is probably good for everybody else in the longer run, too.


It may not be time to break out the party hats and bubbly stuff, but at least IT pros can stop worrying about the bottom falling out.


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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.