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U.S. unemployment fell to 3.6 percent, lowest since 1969

The economy added a strong 263,000 jobs in April.

The United States has more job openings than unemployed people, a situation some economists call “full employment” since most job seekers are able to land a job. (Jenny Kane/AP)

The U.S. economy added 263,000 jobs in April, notching a record 103 straight months of job gains and signaling the current economic expansion shows little sign of stalling.

The unemployment rate fell to 3.6 percent, the Labor Department said Friday, the lowest since 1969. The official unemployment rate has been at or below 4 percent for more than a year.

Hiring was strong across most sectors with especially large gains in business services (76,000 jobs added), construction (33,000 jobs added) and health care (27,000 jobs added). Economists were watching government employment closely since the Census Bureau is beginning to ramp up hiring ahead of the 2020 Census. The federal government added 12,500 jobs in April, which likely included some boost from the Census Bureau but isn’t a large effect yet.

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“There is no denying this is a strong jobs report,” said Joel Prakken, chief U.S. economist at Macroeconomic Advisers. “The only number you can point to that looks disappointing is that manufacturing employment has stalled.”

The United States has more job openings than unemployed people, a situation some economists call “full employment” since most job seekers are able to land a job. Hispanic unemployment dropped to 4.2 percent in April, a record low since the Labor Department started measuring it in the 1970s.

“The job market looks good on about any measure," said Matthew Luzzetti, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank. "While the unemployment rate is the lowest since 1969, a better measure is to look at the unemployment rate that includes people working part time because they can’t find a full-time job. That is low, but it’s only the lowest since 2000.”

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Low unemployment is forcing employers to raise pay and become more aggressive about hiring and training workers. Average hourly earnings rose 3.2 percent in the past year, well above inflation, and lower wage workers enjoyed some of the largest gains as companies scrambled to fill jobs and many states have raised their minimum wage.

Business leaders increasingly say their No. 1 challenge is finding enough people to fill job openings. McLane Co. is a large trucking and warehouse firm that specializes in moving food and grocery items around the country. They are advertising truck driving jobs for $70,000 a year and a $6,000 sign on bonus in Jessup, Pa., but even at that level of pay it’s been tough to get enough people in the door.

“The economy is good, but that’s very difficult for employers,” said Joe Stagnaro, president of McLane’s Pennsylvania operations. “The people you want to hire are employed by someone else.”

Stagnaro decided to try something new in addition to the many Internet job listings, billboards and newspaper ads that McLane uses to try to get the word out about openings. He just inked a deal with a truck driving school to train people to become truckers right on McLane’s site with the company picking up the tab for all the training. He has had a lot of interest from the company’s warehouse workers who are eager to learn more skills, earn a commercial driver’s license and transition into a higher paying job.

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There’s no official government measure of how much money companies are investing in training their own workers, but as unemployment remains low and wages rise, more and more managers say they are looking to grow talent internally instead of trying to poach it from other companies.

The White House cheered the news as more proof President Trump’s stimulative policies of tax cuts and increased government spending are helping more Americans gain from the robust economy. Vice President Pence and National Economic Council head Larry Kudlow both stressed Friday that the economy is growing and wages are rising without triggering a worrisome increase in inflation.

“You can grow the economy without inflation,” Kudlow said.

Rising inflation typically forces the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates, which can cause a downturn. But with little sign of inflation, the Fed is on hold with no plans to change rates this year. Trump has repeatedly told the Fed to cut rates, but central bank leaders see little need to lower rates given how strong the economy looks right now.

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Many economists call the job market “spectacular” at the moment, although they note there are still some pockets of pain where people are struggling. The United States still has 4.7 million people in part-time jobs who want full-time work and 1.2 million people who have been looking for work for more than six months.

“In a tight labor market, we should be able to find everyone a decent job,” said Susan Houseman, an economist and vice president of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. “As a country, we need to think about how to improve our programs to get the chronically unemployed working again."

Houseman urged politicians to focus on affordable child care and better transportation to help people get to work as well as expanding apprenticeships and job training programs, which can be done by both the public and private sectors.

There has also been concern about the number of people working multiple jobs or feeling they had to have a “side gig” to make ends meet. According to the Labor Department, 5 million Americans work more than one job, a figure that hasn’t changed much in recent years and remains lower than it was during the 1990s boom.

The African American unemployment rate is 6.7 percent, having ticked up since hitting a record low about a year ago. It remains more than double the rate for whites.

“The unemployment rate isn’t 3.6 percent for everybody,” said William Rodgers, chief economist at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. “This is a labor market that can still absorb more workers, especially young adults and minorities."


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