, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It’s tough to imagine a U.S. official monthly jobs report giving off so many conflicting signals about the health of domestic manufacturing and its outlook than the one that came out this morning (for April).

On the one hand, the sector’s 18,000 jobs loss was its worst monthly performance since the identical January setback. On the other hand, the problem was heavily concentrated in the automotive sector, which has been forced to cut back production due to the ongoing global semiconductor shortage. On the other, other hand (!), this shortage is unlikely to ease for many months. On still another hand, the revisions were strong. And some key manufacturing industries continued a recent pattern of solid results. At the same time, even removing the automotive results would still leave the rest of domestic manufacturing’s April employment performance decidedly weak.

I could go on in this vein – and will below.

The decisive automotive/semiconductor effect on the April manufacturing figures becomes clear enough upon realizing that this sector’s 27,000 sequential employment loss was considerably greater than manufacturing’s total on-month job decline. Nonetheless, even had automotive held its employment line, the consequent 9,000 manufacturing job increase would have been unimpressive at very best.

And yet there are those revisions. March’s initially reported 53,000 monthly manufacturing payroll increases – the best such figure since last September’s 55,000 – are now pegged at 54,000. Even better, February’s initially downgraded (from 21,000 to 18,000) monthly employment increase has now been revised all the way up to 35,000.

As a result, domestic industry has now regained 63.83 percent (or 870,000) of the 1.363 million jobs it shed during the height of the CCP Virus pandemic in spring, 2020. It’s still behind the private sector overall (which has recovered 66.88 percent of its pandemic peak employment loss), but still ahead of the overall economy’s (called the non-farm sector by the Labor Department, which issues the monthly jobs reports) 63.26 percent.

The only major April manufacturing jobs loser other than automotive was the small wood products sector (7,200). The big fabricated metals products industry saw employment fall by 2,900 on month in April, but the drop followed a large March gain that’s been downwardly revised but still stands at a strong 10,400.

The machinery numbers were downright encouraging, and that matters because as I keep reminding, this subsector’s products are used not only throughout the rest of domestic manufacturing, but in other important parts of the economy like construction and agriculture. Its April employment boost of 3,700 followed March job creation that was upgraded strongly to 5,400.

In the big miscellaneous durable goods sector, a catchall category that includes everything from surgical equipment and supplies (like personal healthcare protection equipment – PPE – more on which later) to jewelry to gaskets and fasteners to musical instruments, payrolls jumped by 12,600 – their best monthly performance since its 15,300 advance last July.

And two other significant manufacturing employers –miscellaneous non-durable goods and the big chemicals sectors (whose output is also used all over the economy) – each generated enjoyed healthy payrolls increases of 4,300 in April.

Even the industries closely related to the fight against the CCP Virus, whose employment performance since the pandemic’s arrival generally have disappointed, showed some signs of job-creation life in April.

The overall pharmaceutical industry added 1,500 jobs on month in March (the latest available figures) and Februay’s improvement remains a strong 1,700. Since the last pre-pandemic month (February, 2020), this sector’s payrolls have grown by 3.11 percent.

Hiring slowed in the pharmaceuticals subsector containing vaccines – from 1,300 sequentially in February (unchanged from the first estimate) to 500 in March (also the latest available figures). But these companies’ employment is still 6.77 percent higher than in that last pre-pandemic month of February, 2020.

The employment signals were mixed in the manufacturing category containing PPE goods like facemasks, gloves, and medical gowns. Monthly job creation in February was downgraded from zero to a loss of 100, but March’s results (also the most recent) came in at 900, and this sector now employs 8.75 percent more workers than in February, 2020.

In an aerospace industry troubled for years by Boeing’s safety woes, the recent jobs figures are literally all over the place. The latest (March) results show that payrolls for aircraft fell month-to-month in March by 1,800 – surely reflecting the continuing virus-generated slump in air travel. But February’s upward revisions were nothing less than stunning – skyrocketing from a jump of 1,000 to one of 11,700. Fluctuations – though more modest – were also evident in aircraft engines and parts, and non-engine aircraft parts.

Yet as confusing as the new manufacturing jobs figures have been, the future seems just as cloudy. Optimism remains justified by developments like the enormous amounts of stimulus still pouring into the U.S. economy, by the apparent certainty that a major injection of infratructure spending is (finally) on the way, and by the continuing reopening of the economy spurred by vaccinations and less consumer caution.

Even so, the semiconductor shortage is not only here to stay for some time, but has affected many other industries other than automotive. The rate of U.S. vaccinations is slowing and the virus – including the new variants – appears likely to stage something of a comeback when the weather cools again in the fall. Air travel may never recover to pre-virus levels, which will harm not only the aerospace industry per se, but its vast domestic supply chain. And higher taxes and many more regulations could well hit U.S.-based manufacturers – at least until the Congressional elections of 2022.

On balance, I’d still bet on a bright future for domestic industry – mainly because all the sentiment surveys show that manufacturers themselves are full of confidence, and because President Biden has kept in place all the Trump China and metals tariffs that have priced much foreign competition out of the U.S. market. But I’m far from willing to bet the ranch.