Economy-watchers just got another reminder today of how difficult it remains to figure out how healthy the current recovery is – from the data on employment turnover released by the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The biggest surprise they delivered concerned the numbers of job openings reported (preliminarily) for February in the economy’s subsidized private sector.
Whereas the last few months of BLS data indicate that hiring in industries like healthcare services (which are heavily dependent on government support) hasn’t been quite so outsized as over the last decade, the new job turnover numbers (commonly known by their acronym JOLTS) suggest that they’re still punching above their weight.
If you think – as you should – that the real private sector should flat-out dominate job creation because it’s the economy’s leader in productivity and innovation, that’s not such a great development.
For the first three months of this year, the subsidized private sector accounted for 18.57 percent of the 533,000 total net new jobs America created. During the first three months of last year, this figure was 21.26 percent. These numbers will be revised several times more, but so far they signal that subsidized private sector jobs gains have lost some of their relative steam. (For more on the robust hiring in these industries during the current recovery, see this recent post.)
But the job turnover data appear to be sending the opposite message. Here we only have statistics going through February, and they’ll be revised down the road, too. But for the first two months of this year, 19.38 percent of the 11.368 million total job openings have come in the subsidized private sector. For the first two months of 2016, that figure was only 17.76 percent. In fact, the 1.138 million job openings estimated in the subsidized in February were the highest monthly total ever in absolute terms. (This data series started in 2000.)
To be sure, the subsidized private sector’s share of total job openings this year is a little below the levels that have held for most of the recovery. (See this post for more detail.) But its year-on-year rise is tough to square with the relative decline in actual job creation.
Another noteworthy result found in today’s job turnover report: The decline of retail job opportunities comes through plain as day. It’s not that the sector, whose bricks-and-mortars segment is under such tremendous pressure from on-line shopping, isn’t reporting any job openings at all. In fact, at 541,000 in February (on a preliminary basis), they were on the low end but still respectable by the standards of the last few years.
Look at the year-on-yer change, however, and you can see the retail employment problem. Reported job openings during January and February combined were down nearly ten percent. Those kinds of drops haven’t been seen since early in the recovery, in 2010.
These employment-related developments stand in especially stark contrast to the Federal Reserve’s apparent conclusion that the economy is just about fully recovered, and that the central bank’s new priority is sustaining “what we have achieved,” as chair Janet Yellen declared yesterday. This approach of course entails continuing to raise interest rates gradually, and reducing the immense amount of bonds the Fed bought as part of its stimulus program. Here’s hoping that the Fed’s confidence more accurately reflects the true state of the economy than these latest figures.