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Running Out of Workers?

Summary:
I am not convinced that the demand for labor was hard hit by Trump’s escalating trade war during May. Granted, payroll employment was weak last month, rising just 75,000 (Fig. 1). That compares poorly to the average gains of 186,250 per month during the first four months of this year and 223,250 per month during 2018. The problem may be that all the anecdotal evidence of labor shortages is actually constraining the growth of payrolls. Perhaps we really are finally running out of workers, or at least those with the appropriate skills and geographic proximity to fill job openings. Consider the following: (1) Openings. There certainly are plenty of job openings. They totaled 7.45 million during April, exceeding the number of unemployed workers by a record 1.6 million (Fig. 2). (2) The

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Running Out of Workers?
I am not convinced that the demand for labor was hard hit by Trump’s escalating trade war during May. Granted, payroll employment was weak last month, rising just 75,000 (Fig. 1). That compares poorly to the average gains of 186,250 per month during the first four months of this year and 223,250 per month during 2018.

The problem may be that all the anecdotal evidence of labor shortages is actually constraining the growth of payrolls. Perhaps we really are finally running out of workers, or at least those with the appropriate skills and geographic proximity to fill job openings. Consider the following:

(1) Openings. There certainly are plenty of job openings. They totaled 7.45 million during April, exceeding the number of unemployed workers by a record 1.6 million (Fig. 2).

(2) The most. Here were the industries with the most job openings during April: professional and business services (1.241 million), health care and social assistance (1.244 million), and leisure & hospitality (1.004 million) (Fig. 3). Those are roughly the same levels of openings as a year ago, when the job market was also widely deemed to be tight.

(3) The biggest. The biggest increases in job openings compared to a year ago have been in some of the most cyclical industries: construction (404,000, up from 258,000), durable goods manufacturing (322,000 up from 288,000), state & local government excluding education (359,000, up from 339,000), transportation, warehousing & utilities (373,000, up from 348,000), and financial services (365,000, up from 328,000) (Fig. 4).

(4) The least and the one big loser. Interestingly, neither mining & logging (33,000) nor information technology (131,000) is looking for very many workers. Job openings in retail trade fell from 1.032 million a year ago to 837,000 during April (Fig. 5).

(5) Labor force. Last year, the labor force increased 217,000 per month on average (Fig. 6). During the first five months of this year, it is down 119,000 per month on average. This must be exacerbating labor shortages.

(6) NILFs. The problem is that senior Baby Boomers (65 years old and older) are retiring and dropping out of the labor market faster than 25- to 64-year-olds are entering the labor market, while most members of the 16-24 cohort are still in school (Fig. 7).

Over the 12 months through May, the total number of people not in the labor force (NILFs) increased 428,000, with senior NILFs up 1.1 million, younger adult NILFs down 137,000, and student NILFs down 440,000.

(7) Small business owners. The report reviewing May’s NFIB small business survey showed that the demand for labor by small business owners remains strong. Last month, 38.0% said that they have job openings, which continues the readings in record-high territory (Fig. 8). The net percentage increasing hiring over the next three months was 21.0%, near previous cyclical highs. However, the percentage complaining of few or no qualified applicants for their job openings was 54.0%.

Twenty-five percent of all owners cited the difficulty of finding qualified workers as their Single Most Important Business Problem, equaling the record high. Fourteen percent of all firms reported using temporary workers. In construction, 59% had openings, and 93% of those openings were for skilled workers. No wonder that construction payrolls rose only 4,000 during May.

The NFIB survey’s job-openings series is highly inversely correlated with both the national unemployment rate (at just 3.6% in May) and the percentage of respondents who say that jobs are hard to get in the Consumer Confidence survey (at only 10.9% in May) (Fig. 9 and Fig. 10). All these indicators portray a labor market that’s been very tight through May, when payrolls rose much less than expected.

(8) Productivity to the rescue? Does it really matter whether payroll employment growth slows because we’ve run out of workers or because demand for workers is weakening? Either way, wages and salaries growth will slow and depress consumer spending and GDP growth. In our opinion, better productivity growth may have started to offset the supply constraints that are slowing payroll gains. Businesses will still have demand for their goods and services and will do what they can to produce more by boosting productivity.

Running Out of Workers?
Dr. Ed Yardeni
Dr. Ed Yardeni is the President and Chief Investment Strategist of Yardeni Research, Inc., a provider of independent investment strategy and economics research for institutional investors. In this blog, we highlight some of the more interesting relationships and developments that should be of interest to investors. Our premium research service is designed for institutional investors.

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