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Make that twice in a row. Just as in its November counterpart, the December official U.S. jobs data revealed sluggish overall American employment growth but better numbers for manufacturing. Even better, the gains were broad-based and the revisions of previous solid results were nicely positive.

A glass-half-empty type could rightly point out that industry’s 26,000 sequential payrolls gain last month was its weakest monthly result since April’s 35,000 employment drop. But the sector’s previously reported 31,000 sequential employment improvement is now pegged at 35,000. And after being downgraded from 60,000 to a (still-not-too shabby) 48,000, October’s increase has now been upgraded to 52,000.

For comparison’s sake, industry’s employment improvement came to 0.21 percent – as opposed to 0.17 percent for the private sector as a whole and 0.13 percent for “non-farm payrolls” (the U.S. Labor Department’s definition of the American employment universe).    

In fact, the December results continued a record of job out-performance that’s been consistent throughout the pandemic period.

As of December, manufacturers had replaced 84.19 percent (1.166 million) of the 1.385 million employees they’d shed during the short but steep CCP Virus-induced downturn of March and April, 2020. That figure’s 3.01 percent higher the 81.73 percent of regained jobs calculable from last month’s jobs report. Consequently, manufacturing payrolls are within 1.71 percent of their levels in February, 2020 – the last full data month before the pandemic began hammering and distorting the entire economy.

As for non-farm payrolls, they’ve now regained 84.02 percent (18.790 million) of the 22.362 million jobs lost during the worst of the pandemic. That’s 1.84 percent better than the 82.50 percent share calculable from last month’s jobs report. And there are now just 2.34 percent fewer non-farm U.S. jobs than in February, 2020.

As in the recent past, at first glance today it looks like the U.S. private sector has outdone manufacturing jobs-wise since the current economic rebound began. It’s recovered 87.61 percent (18.708 million) of its 21.353 million job loss during the spring of 2020. That’s 1.80 percent higher than the 86.06 percent figure calculable from the November jobs report. So it’s workforce is now 2.04 percent smaller than just before the pandemic.

But as known by RealityChek regulars, manufacturing’s jobs decline during that terrible spring of 2020 was smaller proportionately than that of the private or non-farm sectors. So even though it’s had less ground to make up, U.S.-based industry has been creating new employment at nearly the pace of the economy as a whole.

Indeed, just before the CCP Virus struck, manufacturing jobs represented 8.45 percent of total non-farm employment and 9.87 percent of private sector employment. As of December, these shares had risen to 8.45 percent and 9.90 percent, respectively.

The list of biggest jobs winners among the major manufacturing sub-sectors tracked by the Labor Department was headed by machinery – where payrolls rose by 7,000 on month in December. That was its biggest advance since July’s 8,700, and especially encouraging both because this industry lost 6,000 jobs in November (slightly better than the 7,000 decrease previously reported), and because its products are used throughout both manufacturing and big non-manufacturing industries like agriculture and construction.

Therefore, if machinery makers are adding strongly to their headcounts, they’re probably expecting demand for their goods to grow further. December’s hiring surge brought machinery employment to within 2.14 percent of its February, 2020 level.

Another major manufacturing employment gainer – automotive, where employment increased by 4,200 sequentially in December, and where the terrible 10,100 job loss reported last month for November is now judged to be just 5,900. As a result, payrolls in automotive – which remains dogged by the global semiconductor shortage – are now 5.28 percent lower than their immediate pre-pandemic levels.

Good December results were reported as well in the very big chemicals sector, which added 2,300 positions on month, and whose November performance was upgraded from no change to a 400-worker increase. Consequently, chemicals employment is now 1.30 percent greater than in February, 2020.

Other significant December manufacturing jobs winners included non-metallic mineral products (2,100) and plastics and rubber products (2,000).

The only manufacturing jobs loser that saw payrolls down by more than 1,000 was paper and paper products, where employment was off by 1,500. Even here, though, there was a somewhat bright side, as the decline was its first since July, and followed an upwardly revised 2,800 gain – its best since September, 2020’s 3,200. And this sub-sector’s employment levels are off just 1.84 percent since pre-pandemic-y February, 2020.

Given the aforementioned semiconductor shortage, however, it’s worth noting that December saw the semiconductors and electronic components industries (which, as the name suggests, includes more than just microchips), suffer their first back-to-back employment decline since March and April, 2020. The job reductions of 200 in November (upgraded from the previously reported 600) and 800 in December left employment levels 0.08 percent below those just before the CCP Virus struck.

As always, the most detailed employment data for pandemic-related industries are one month behind those in the broader categories, and their November job creation was mixed.

The surgical appliances and supplies sector, which contains personal protective equipment and similar goods, added 1,400 workers sequentially in November. And even though October net hiring remained unrevised at a small 100, these industries have now increased employment by 9.60 percent since February, 2020.

Yet the overall pharmaceuticals and medicines industry lost 600 jobs in November, after boosting employment by a downwardly revised 1,400 in October. Its workforce is now 5.27 percent larger than in February, 2020.

Much better results were turned in by the medicines subsector containing vaccines. October’s hiring gain was revised up from 700 to 800, and payrolls rose by another 1,400 in November. These advances have pushed these companies’ payrolls 14.66 higher than just before the pandemic’s arrival.

The mixed pattern continued in the aviation cluster, which has suffered both from aerospace giant Boeing’s manufacturing and safety problems and the pandemic’s restrictions on travel. Good news like the prospect of China allowing the troubled 737 Max model to return to its huge market reportedly have spurred the company to speed up a production rebound, and interestingly, U.S. aircraft employment climbed by 1,000 in November – the best monthly performance since July’s 4,700 jump.

But October’s previously reported small 300 jobs gain was revised down to 200, and with its workforce still 7.75 percent smaller than in February, 2020, aircraft employment’s comeback remains far from complete.

Moreover, the improving aircraft jobs picture doesn’t yet extend to aircraft suppliers. In aircraft engines and engine parts industry, October’s previously reported 100 job decline is now judged to be an increase of 100. But payrolls resumed shrinking in November (by 300), and employment in this sector is now off 13.93 percent since February, 2020.

In non-engine aircraft parts and equipment, employment was unchanged sequentially in November, but a jobs gain of 100 previously reported for October has now been downgraded to a job loss of 100. The bottom line? Its workforce is now 15.74 percent smaller than in February, 2020.

As has been so often the case, and like the rest of the economy, U.S. manufacturing faces perplexing – and in fact unprecedented crosswinds – going forward. And the uncertainties look all the more mysterious since these December jobs results pre-date the arrival of the wildly infectious Omicron variant of the CCP Virus – which could well lead to more health-related restrictions and behavioral changes, even tighter labor markets, and slower economic growth.

But unless Omicron prompts major, protracted shutdowns, manufacturing’s performance during the pandemic so far seems to justify optimism that industry will keep overcoming whatever obstacles come its way — whether policy or pathogens.