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In contrast to the mixed set of signals I saw being given off by last month’s official monthly U.S. jobs report (for April), today’s May figures are pretty clearly indicating that manufacturing hiring is in a weak patch. In fact, the patch has been weak enough to turn the sector from a national employment creation leader to a laggard. Just as important, the short-term outlook at least seems somewhat dimmer than it had been.

The main reason for confusion over the previous data had to do with the disconnect between the automotive-heavy losses of April (which accounted for more than all of that month’s initially reported 18,000 net job decrease) and the positive revisions for the preceding months. Another very encouraging sign – the second straight month of strong jobs gains for the machinery sector, whose products are used widely not only in the rest of manufacturing, but in other major parts of the economy like agriculture and construction.

May’s results were almost a mirror image – and not in a good way.

For example, whereas in April, the 27,000 sequential automotive job losses exceeded total manufacturing job loss of 18,000 (leaving the rest of industry’s hiring performance pretty subdued, to be sure), in May, automotive payrolls rose by 24,800. But overall manufacturing job gains totaled only 23,000 – so the rest of the sector shed workers on net.

In addition, revisions are now negative. April’s manufacturing employment is now judged to have fallen by 32,000 month-to-month, not 18,000. That’s largely because that month’s automotive layoffs were much bigger than first reported – 37,700 rather than 27,000. Even March’s very good upwardly revised monthly hiring surge of 54,000 has now been revised down again to 51,000.

As for machinery, that crucial industry lost 4,700 jobs on net in May – its worst results by far since April, 2020 – at the depths of the CCP Virus-induced downturn and the first negative number since January. Moreover, this April’s 3,700 monthly jobs increase has now been revised down to 1,900, and March’s last upgraded 5,400 figure is now pegged at only 3,500.

In all, manufacturing has now regained 876,000 (64.27 percent) of the 1.363 million jobs it lost at the pandemic’s height in the spring of 2020. That’s now well behind the 69.74 percent employment recovery of the private sector and even the 65.88 percent rebound of the total economy (defined as the non-farm sector by the U.S. Labor Department, which compiles and categorizes the data).

The manufacturing sectors with the biggest sequential May jobs gains were the overall transportation equipment sector (where a 9,000 hiring improvement was propped up by the automotive increases), miscellaneous non-durbable good makers (up 4,100), fabricated metals products (up 3,500) miscellaneous durable goods manufacturing (a catch-all category including everything from surgical equipment – like facemasks and other personal protection equipment to gaskets to jewelry – where payrolls were up 3,400), and computer and electronics products and electrical equipment and appliances (up 2,800 each).

The hiring in fabricated metals and appliances was noteworthy given that companies in both industries have been complaining loudly about the pain they’ve been suffering from higher metals prices stemming in part from ongoing U.S. tariffs on these materials. (See, e.g., here and here.)

May’s big manufacturing jobs losers aside from machinery were non-metallic mineral products (down 2,200), paper and paper products (down 2,100), and the big chemicals sector, which is another big supplier of a wide variety of products to the entire economy (down 1,100).

More encouragingly, when it comes to industries closely related to the fight against the pandemic, job creation seems picking up, although the relevant data are one month behind the rest of the jobs figures. Specifically, in the surgical appliances and supplies sector that includes the protective gear, March’s employment increase was unrevised at 900, and hiring accelerated to 1,200 in April – the best monthly performance since September’s 1,600. This sector’s payrolls are now 10,400 (9.89 percnt) higher than in February, 2020 – the last pre-pandemic month.

For pharmaceuticals and medicines overall, March’s 1,500 sequential jobs increase was revised up to 1,600, and April hiring surged to 2,700 – its best performance by far of the CCP Virus period. Its payrolls are up by 12,500 (4.01 percent) since pre-pandemicky February, 2020.

For the pharmaceuticals subsector containing vaccines, March’s initially reported employment increas of 500 is now judged to be 800, and net hiring grew by 1,300 in April – a solid improvement by this industry’s recent standards. As a result, its workforce has now increased by 9,200 (9.30 percent) since February, 2020.

The same unfortunately can’t be said for the aerospace industry, and continuing and even mounting troubles for Boeing presage ongoing woes for the foreseeable future. March’s initially reported 1,800 monthly job loss for aircraft has now been revised for the worse to 1,900, and the sectors workforce fell by another 200 in April. Meanwhile, following sequential March losses in aircraft engines and parts, and in non-engine aircraft parts, employment flatlined in these two sectors combined in April.

Continued strength in the overall recovery of the U.S. economy should provide strong tailwinds for domestic manufacturers and for industry’s jobs figures, and continuing tariffs should help by keep much foreign competition (especially from China) out of the market.

Vaccine production will likely keep expanding – and requiring more workers – as well, mainly to supply immense foreign demand. But the sector is so small that its employment performance can’t move the manufacturing jobs needle much.

Boeing’s problems, however, can be expected to cast a big shadow not only over the big aerospace industry, but over its big domestic supply chain as well. And although the global semiconductor shortage that has hit the automotive sector especially hard may be starting to ease, the damage appears likely to take considerably longer to overcome. Manufacturers face big questions about the future of U.S. tax and regulatory policy, too.

Recently, moreover, some data’s come out pointing to a development that might wind up strengthening domestic industry in toto, but weakening its employment potential, at least in the short run. Labor Department figures show that, from the depths of the pandemic through the first quarter of this year, U.S.-based manufacturing has boosted its labor productivity much faster than the non-farm economy generally — and much faster than it has since its recovery from the last recession.  In other words, manufacturers lately been improving their ability to turn out product more than they’ve increased hiring. 

Whether this is a secular change or whether industry will revert to its recent mean is anyone’s guess. Also highly uncertain is whether better productivity growth (including of course more use of labor-saving technologies) will wind up destroying jobs on net, or increasing them by supercharging production. So far history seems to teach that such advances are net employment creators, but is that inevitable going forward? And is it inevitable for manufacturing specifically? All I can say is “Stay tuned” and “Be patient.”