Unemployment Rate Drops to 4.5% in March as Job and Earnings Growth Stall

By Mark Lieberman

Managing Director and Senior Economist


  • Unemployment rate FELL in March to 4.5 percent, the lowest rate in almost 10 years (May 2007);
  • Payroll jobs INCREASED 98,000 in March, the weakest job growth since last May;
  • Prior month job totals were revised down: February from a gain of 235,000 to a gain of 219,000 and January from a gain of 238,000 to an increase of 216,000 jobs;
  • Private sector payrolls rose 89,000 in March, also the weakest growth since last May;
  • Average weekly hours in March FELL to 34.3, the lowest since last November;
  • Average weekly earnings INCREASED in March to $896.60 — up $1.77 from February but the 2.4 percent year-year growth was slightly weaker than the 2.5 percent annual growth recorded in February;
  • Average hourly earnings ROSE 5¢ in March to $26.14, a 2.7 percent year-year jump; in February average, hourly earnings registered a 2.8 percent year-year improvement;
  • The number of full-time workers INCREASED 326,000 in February; the number of part-time workers ROSE 149,000;
  • Labor force participation rate HELD at 63.0 percent;
  • Employment-Population ratio ROSE to 60.1 percent, the highest level since February 2009;
  • The number of multiple jobholder went UP 138,000; multiple jobholders represent 5.2 percent of all employed individuals, up from 5.1 percent in February;

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Despite the lowest unemployment rate in almost 10 years, this has to be considered a disappointing Employment Situation report, with the weakest job growth in 10 months and downward revisions to the job totals reported for the first two months of the Trump Administration. The revisions to January and February job growth trimmed the number of new jobs by 38,000.

So, what happened?

Some of the changes can be attributed simply to the calendar as the number of retail jobs fell marking the official end of the holiday shopping season. Some too relates to the weather with 6,000 new construction jobs in March, down from the addition of 15,000 in February.

Unusually good winter weather in the Midwest and Northeast probably strengthened job growth in January and February. March was payback time.,

Offsetting the drop in retail jobs, the number of restaurant jobs grew 21,700. Restaurant jobs have been a steady source of job growth having increased for 57 consecutive months. But, those jobs remain among the lowest paying jobs.

The health care sector too remained a strong source of new jobs, adding 16,700 jobs in March, the 54th straight month of job growth. The health care sector, of course, dodged a bullet when the House cancelled a vote on a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. Since the ACA took effect, the number of health care jobs has increased by 1.5 million or just over 39,000 per month.

Wage growth, though up in March appears to be slowing slightly. Coupled with the dip in average weekly hours, it means workers have less, not more, money in their pockets. Indeed, the slight drop in weekly hours is a bad omen for future hiring. An increase in hours would mean employers have to add to staff. In the immediate aftermath of the onset of the Great Recession, hours fell below 34, dropping as low as 33.8.

Average weekly earnings fell in the construction, and manufacturing sectors. The construction sector is one of the highest paying industry sectors with average weekly earnings of $1,039.77, topped only by the utilities sector ($1,5550.86) and the mining and logging sector ($1,262.69). Manufacturing workers earned an average of $864.84 per week in March, down $2.04 from February. Construction worker earnings fell $6.97 a week in March.

The weakness in hours and the mild slowing in wage growth suggest a weaker labor market than we’d like to see but there also seems to be little basis for concern about inflationary pressures.

The overall job growth should be tempered by the increase of 138,000 multiple jobholders.

The drop in the unemployment rate though remains the redeeming factor in this report. The number of persons unemployed fell 326,000 to 7.2 million, the lowest level since September 2007. Delving into that number, the number of individuals unemployed because of layoffs dropped 190,000 in March and the number of individuals unemployed for fewer than five week dropped 232,000. Some of those could have left that bracket and are now unemployed for 5-14 weeks, but that category fell 29,000. Together that suggest that new entrants to the ranks of the unemployed don’t remain there very long.

Unemployment rates for sub-categories also showed improvement. The unemployment rate for blacks dipped to a still high 8.0 percent from 8.1 percent in February and the unemployment rate for Hispanics dropped 0.5 percent to 5.1 percent. Even the teenage unemployment rate was down, dropping 1.3 percentage points to 13.7 percent, the lowest it has been since May 2001 when it stood at 13.4 percent.

Hear Mark Lieberman every Friday morning at 6:20 am on The Morning Briefing on POTUS on Sirius-XM 124.

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