Unemployment fell to 3.5 percent, back to the level of February 2020, before the pandemic.
Although other economic indicators worsened in recent months, the labor market continued to boom. But the job outlook is changing, with workers seeing moderate wage growth and employers slowing hiring in anticipation of a slowdown in sales.
“Employers are hiring primarily for replacement rather than growth and expansion, and they’re focusing on key roles,” said ZipRecruiter economist Julia Pollak. “But when push comes to shove, they’re still going to have to hire because they’re still seeing customers walking through the door and healthy sales.”
Ahead of Friday’s report, Wall Street forecasters had forecast a September figure of 250,000 new jobs.
The biggest job gains were seen in leisure and hospitality, with 83,000 jobs added in September, one of the few sectors that still hasn’t returned to its pre-pandemic levels – the industry remains 1.1 million jobs below February 2020 levels. The healthcare system increased by 60,000 jobs, with large gains in hospitals and ambulatory healthcare services.
Professional services and business services provided 46,000 jobs. Temporary help services added 27,000 jobs. Losses in the temp industry are typically a bellwether for economic downturns.
Manufacturing, construction and wholesale trade continued to see strong growth. Transport and storage, retail, government and mining showed little change. Employment in financial services decreased somewhat.
Nick Bunker, director of North American economic research for job site Indeed, said a slowing job market should not cause alarm.
“We have to change our expectations,” Bunker said. “The gains from earlier this year were astronomical, because we were in a very, very big hole when it came to jobs, and we’re now getting something like full employment.”
Anxiety has flared over a potential downturn as the stock market has fallen, inflation has risen and the housing market has cooled. Nearly two-thirds of economists recently surveyed by Bankrate, a consumer financial services company, predicted a recession by mid-2024.
The Federal Reserve has warned that households and the labor market will experience some pain, as will officials continue to raise interest rates to dampen demand and thereby lower inflation. So far, the labor market has remained robust, but it is far too early to see the full effects of the Fed’s monetary policy.
Other indicators suggest that the Fed is achieving its goal of softening the labor market without widespread layoffs.
Average hourly earnings continued to rise, but at a slower rate of 0.3 percent this month, to $32.46 an hour. Slower wage growth suggests that low-wage workers in particular are feeling inflation even harder, while employers have been able to attract workers without further increasing wages.
“To the extent that employers already raised wages earlier this year, the higher wages are still working to attract workers,” said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. “Wages are not falling, but they are not rising at the same rate.”
The labor force participation rate was little changed at 62.1 percent, an area where economists had hoped to see more growth to ease labor shortages.
Employers in August had 10.1 million job openings, down about 10 percent from the previous month, according to a Labor Department report released Tuesday.
The continued tightness of the labor market has enabled workers to flex their muscles to demand better wages and working conditions. Last week, a three-day strike at San Francisco International Airport resulted in $5 an hour for about 1,000 food service workers. Meanwhile, Amazon will face a union election next week at a warehouse near Albany, NY, which could result in the second unionized store in the e-commerce giant’s vast logistics empire. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
But workers’ wage gains continue to be wiped out by high inflation, which has disproportionately hit low-income households that spend a larger share of their income on food and housing, where prices have continued to rise sharply.
Jamika Ruffin, 29, earns $10 an hour as a cashier at a McDonald’s in Detroit, after seven years at the fast food chain. She received a 25-cent raise in January, but said it hasn’t gone far.
“We don’t live on these wages,” Ruffin said. “We survive. The cost of living has increased so much this year.”
Ruffin said she can’t always pay her phone bill and has to borrow money so her daughter can go on field trips with her school. And at the end of the month, they visit soup kitchens for food.
The latest changes in the labor market have helped some employers.
Jeff Ulmer, the owner of Action Hardware in Wilmington, Del., said he’s finding it easier to hire after months of struggling to compete with larger employers for retail workers. High school students, he said, could find jobs elsewhere starting at $15 an hour, much more than he could afford to pay.
“We’ve had better luck recently,” Ulmer said. “The power between owner and employee had changed, but it’s starting to go back the other way.”