Strong hiring doesn't dispel gloom
More workers seem to be trickling back.
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The U.S. labor market appears to be getting back on track, said Olivia Rockeman at Bloomberg. The economy added 531,000 jobs last month, easing concerns about a chronic worker shortage. New data also "paint a sunnier picture of the job market than previously thought" after the Labor Department revised the disappointing payroll estimates from August and September, adding 235,000 jobs to the totals. The unemployment rate sits at 4.6 percent, a pandemic low. The dark cloud: The labor-force participation rate, which includes Americans who are employed or actively looking for work, "has barely budged in recent months as millions of people remain on the sidelines." Even with October's gains, the economy is still 4.2 million jobs short of its pre-pandemic level. A flood of people returning to work after federal stimulus benefits expired on Labor Day has not materialized as some economists expected. But more workers do seem to be trickling back.
"The economy is doing pretty well," said Catherine Rampell at The Washington Post. Job numbers are ticking back up, and "Americans' perceptions of the job market are stellar," with 74 percent saying that "now is a good time to find a job." Wages are rising, productivity is strong, and the stock market has reached all-time highs. "So why doesn't it feel that way?" Despite all the great indicators, Americans' confidence in the state of the economy is sliding. That's because we are beset by worries about inflation and supply chain disruptions canceling Christmas. The Biden administration is losing a "vibes war," said Derek Thompson at The Atlantic. Even if it doesn't reflect the reality, voters feel "rotten" about economic prospects, particularly rising prices. "But we may have reached an inflection point." The strong jobs report heralded that the worker shortage is easing. And while the supply chain snarls won't end overnight, they probably won't last too much longer. "Today's economy is better than it feels."
There's still a "divide between what employers and job seekers want," said Heather Long and Eli Rosenberg at The Washington Post, and that mismatch is complicating the recovery. Many companies expect "candidates with experience, availability to work evening or weekend hours, or a willingness to work in person." But that doesn't align with workers' priorities today — and workers still have the upper hand. Bartender Sam Wiles said he's never seen so many restaurants demanding "open availability," meaning they "want people who can work any night of the week." Employers may say they are desperate, Wiles said, "but they are unwilling to adjust their expectations."
Bigger companies are "brainstorming ways to get more candidates in the door," said Lauren Weber and Chip Cutter at The Wall Street Journal. At the Body Shop's Wake Forest distribution center, one worker fired for poor attendance got a call from his supervisor asking him to return; now he's back, working for $16 an hour. Some businesses, like CVS, have dropped educational requirements for applicants, while others have eliminated background checks. Many employers raised job qualifications after the 2008 recession, but the opposite is happening amid this labor shortage. The question is whether "a shrinking American workforce will recast hiring practices" for good.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.