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January jobs report shows exceptionally strong labor market, U-M economists say

February 3, 2023

Employers added 517,000 jobs in January 2023, capping a year marked by record-low unemployment and high job growth. The unemployment rate fell to 3.4%, a low last seen in 1969, according to new data released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This month's employment report is particularly complex because the release includes an annual update to estimates of the overall population size and corrections to the employer data that reflect a comparison of survey estimates with comprehensive counts of payroll jobs, say University of Michigan economic researchers Betsey Stevenson and Benny Docter.

"Job growth was stronger than we realized last year and yet inflation moderated," said Stevenson, a professor at U-M's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. "Clearly, we need to be more circumspect about our understanding of job growth, a tight labor market and the potential for wage price spirals when the growth is part of a recovery from a pandemic that plunged us temporarily into a hole." 

Job growth has been faster than we previously realized

Average monthly job growth in 2021 exceeded that of any previous year on record, while 2022 was the second-fastest year on record for job growth. And now we know both of these years had faster job growth than we previously realized. The patterns remain the same: Job growth accelerated in the second half of 2021 before slowing in the first half of 2022 and slowing further in the second half of 2022. 

Most notably, the data revisions add 69,000 jobs per month between July and December 2021, bringing job growth to a monthly average of 659,000. While growth slowed in the second half of 2022, the revisions added 51,000 jobs per month, bringing job growth to 358,000 per month between July and December of 2022. 

The total number of jobs in the economy surpassed the February 2020 level in June 2022. And yet job growth since then has remained roughly twice as large as monthly job growth during the pre-pandemic boom.  

Large gap remains in different measures of employment

Each month of understanding of the labor market is shaped by two surveys. One survey asks people about their households' labor market experiences. This survey, known as the household survey, gives us our measure of the unemployment rate and the labor force participation rate. The second survey focuses on businesses, asking them about the workers on their payrolls. This survey, known formally as the establishment survey (and informally as the employer survey) gives us the count of the total number of jobs in the economy.

Both surveys can give us a measure of the number of jobs. Each month, we can compare the change in employment measured by the household survey with the change in employment measured by the establishment survey. 

These two measures are not the same because people can hold multiple jobs and can be self-employed, while the establishment survey only covers nonagricultural business establishments. However, we can make adjustments to make the measurements comparable. 

Prior to the pandemic, the estimates of the number of jobs largely matched across the two surveys. In February 2020 both showed 152 million jobs. However, today the employer survey shows that there are 155 million jobs overall, while the household survey shows only 153 million. This 2 million job gap has narrowed from an estimated 3 million, as the population estimate revisions incorporated into the report this month added nearly a million more people with jobs.

Since the pandemic began, the survey of employers has consistently shown fewer jobs lost in the pandemic and a stronger recovery in job growth compared to the household survey (adjusted to be a comparable measure to the employer survey). Which one is true? Both of them have potential measurement errors and either could be wrong. The establishment survey has the strength of being compared to comprehensive counts of payroll jobs every March, and this past March those comprehensive counts revealed an ongoing gap in our measures of employment.

Women's labor force participation has recovered faster than men's

Taken together, young and prime-age women are more likely to be participating in the labor force today compared to prior to the pandemic. In contrast, men across all age groups continue to have lower labor force participation rates. 

Perhaps most discouraging is young men, those ages 16 to 24, for whom labor force participation in January 2023 had little recovered from January 2021; in both cases labor force participation was a full percentage point below pre-pandemic rates. In contrast, young women's labor force participation fell by more, but recovered steadily over the past two years. In January 2023, women ages 16 to 24 were half a percentage point more likely to be in the labor force compared to prior to the pandemic.

Another point of weakness in labor force participation remains older workers. Both men and women ages 55 and over are less likely to be in the labor force than they were in January of 2020. Some of this reflects the aging population, but most of it reflects continued declines in participation among the youngest people over age 55. 

Among those ages 25 to 34, both men's and women's labor force participation has steadily recovered, although neither group is back to pre-pandemic rates. In contrast, women ages 35 to 54 have higher labor force participation rates than they had prior to the pandemic. Labor force participation rates of men in this age group showed improvements in 2022, but remain below pre-pandemic participation rates.

Every industry gained jobs except the tech sector, acceleration was concentrated in industries still recovering from COVID-19

The most surprising aspect of the January employment growth is how broad-based it was. But even below that broad-based growth were trends of slowing growth in the goods producing sector and increasing job growth in services, particularly the service sectors that were leading job growth prior to the pandemic. 

Both leisure and hospitality and private education and health services grew faster in January than the 2022 monthly average. Business and professional services also grew faster in January than its 2022 monthly average. However this sector is one of the strongest growing sectors and is well beyond its pre-pandemic level of hiring, which may indicate that a slowdown in hiring is on the horizon for many parts of the sector. 

Tech sector layoffs have dominated the news over the past few months and the expected slowdown is seen in information service jobs. Indeed, the sector shrunk by 5,000 jobs in January. It is a small sector, with average job growth of 13,000 jobs a month in 2022, but this accounts for a 5.1% expansion of employment in the sector. More broadly, the sector ended 2022 with employment that was 7.4% higher than February 2020. 

Government grew rapidly, largely reflecting the end of a strike that brought workers back to payroll and, therefore, should not be over interpreted as a recovery in government jobs. There are 428,000 fewer jobs in January compared with February 2020.

Strongest job growth continues to come from leisure and hospitality

Most leisure and hospitality work is in-person, and unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic hit this industry particularly hard. Almost three years later, there are over a half million fewer jobs compared with the pre-pandemic peak. The sector also experienced extremely rapid growth in the boom years prior to the pandemic. Full recovery in the sector likely requires not only achieving February 2020 levels of employment, but returning, at least somewhat, to the pre-pandemic trend growth in employment. 

Employers, however, are working to continue to hire and expand, with a surge in job openings in December. Much of the rapid growth in the number of jobs in recent months has come from smaller seasonal declines. Typically, peak employment in the sector occurs in July, and January marks a low point in the number of jobs in the sector. Some of the growth may reflect a slowdown in seasonal layoffs as employers have struggled to hire and may be retaining workers rather than ramping down and ramping back up. If that is the case, we could see slower job growth in the sector this spring.

However, historical patterns suggest the leisure and hospitality sector still has a long way to grow and is likely to help sustain job growth even as other industries start to falter.

About the analysis

The University of Michigan's monthly Rapid Insights labor market analysis is conducted by Stevenson and Docter, senior data analyst at U-M Poverty Solutions. The project is funded by the Robin Hood Foundation, with support from the Ford School and Poverty Solutions.

This article was written by Lauren Slagter of Poverty Solutions and Jeff Karoub of Michigan News.