The U.S. economy added 165,000 nonfarm payroll jobs in April, and there were upward revisions of 114,000 additional nonfarm workers in the months of February and March. The higher February number suggests that job growth in that month was now the highest in almost 3 years. Indeed, for the larger economy, the employment data including the revisions could be perceived as somewhat positive. Yes, we would like to see even greater job gains on a month-by-month basis, but the economy added almost 196,000 workers on average in the first four months of 2013. This is higher than the nearly 183,000 average of 2012.
The unemployment rate fell to 7.5 percent. This is the lowest level since December 2008. At that time, the rate was on its way up, topping off at 10 percent in October 2009. The unemployment rate was 9 percent in April 2011, illustrating its descent in the past two years. Its decline can be explained by two factors: an improving jobs picture and a falling participation rate. In April, the participation rate was unchanged at 63.3 percent. As noted last month, this rate is the lowest since May 1979.
For manufacturers, the news has been less positive. Manufacturing employment was unchanged in April, only slightly lower than the gain of 2,000 workers experienced in March. The revisions to February and March data added 9,000 workers to those two months. Still, over the past 12 months, the sector has actually shed 10,000 workers, illustrating significant weaknesses for manufacturers, especially after July 2012. As we have noted since then, some of the challenges have been slowing domestic and global sales and fiscal and regulatory uncertainties. Recent surveys indicate that this softness persists in March and April data of manufacturing activity on weaker new orders, with hiring continuing to be skittish as long as policies out of Washington continue to provide uncertainty and undue burdens.
Looking specifically at manufacturing sectors, durable goods industries added a net 1,000 workers in April, which was counteracted by a net decline of 1,000 workers from nondurable goods businesses. Manufacturing sectors with employment gains for the month included machinery (up 3,600), transportation equipment (up 3,000, with 2,400 from motor vehicles), fabricated metal products (up 2,500), and food manufacturing (up 2,300). On the negative side, sectors with losses in April were printing and related support activities (down 3,100), apparel (down 2,900), computer and electronic products (down 2,000), wood products (down 1,700), and nonmetallic mineral products (down 1,300).
Reflecting the flat nature of the employment data, overall compensation in the manufacturing sector was also essentially stalled, declining marginally. Average weekly earnings in the sector decreased from $985.73 in March to $982.91 in April. In addition, there were slightly fewer hours worked on average. The average weekly hours in manufacturing in April were 40.7 hours, down from 40.8 hours the month before. Moreover, average overtime hours dropped from 3.4 hours to 3.3 hours.
In short, the manufacturing sector has not performed as well as the larger economy when it comes to jobs gains. This is not to suggest that nonfarm payroll growth is stellar – because it is not – but at least we have seen upward movement in overall hiring. Nonfarm payroll growth is approaching 200,000 on average each month, which is decent and higher than what was seen last year.
Yet, hiring in the manufacturing sector leaves a lot to be desired, going beyond the stalled growth of April. Over the course of the past 12 months, manufacturers have added just over 6,000 workers on net each month. That is well shy of what we like to see coming from the sector, and it is a sign of just how soft new orders and other activity have been for the industry of late. As noted in February in a speech by NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons, we would like to see average monthly job gains of around 20,000. To achieve this “20/20 Vision” – as it has been dubbed – manufacturers will need pro-growth policies stemming from Washington, and it will require stronger economic growth overseas, which will help to drive greater exports.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.