The nation’s unemployment rate remained unchanged in February, but there was one bright spot many economists weren’t expecting: an influx of retail jobs.
In all, retailers added 50,300 jobs in February — four times the number from the month before — even as the U.S. unemployment rate stayed steady at 4.1 percent.
One reason for the gains, economists said: Americans are increasingly renovating their homes instead of buying new ones, helping create thousands of retail jobs at companies like Home Depot and Lowe’s.
Building-material stores hired more than 10,000 workers in February to keep up with booming demand, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those positions accounted for more than one-fifth of the total retail jobs added last month.
The gains are part of a larger trend. Building-material and garden supply stores have added roughly 49,000 jobs in the past year.
“This is a housing repair and remodeling story — and not just because of the recent hurricanes and fires,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at professional-services firm Grant Thornton. “In many cases, people are realizing it’s cheaper and easier to add on to their homes than to buy new ones.”
Low housing supply and high costs, particularly in larger cities, are prompting prospective buyers to think twice before buying a house, Swonk said. Other factors, such as rising interest rates and changes to mortgage-related tax credits, are also contributing to their decisions.
“Add to that the housing stock is older and more decrepit than it used to be, and you’re seeing a boom in remodeling,” Swonk said, adding that she is in the process of replacing the roof on her Chicago-area home.
Homeowners are projected to spend $340 billion on home improvements and repairs this year, up 8 percent from last year, marking the highest increase since before the Great Recession, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Increased demand is also helping create new jobs, albeit low-wage positions that are often seasonal. Home Depot announced plans to hire 80,000 workers last month, while Lowe’s said it would hire more than 53,000 seasonal employees to prepare for spring.
“What’s striking about these numbers is that they are unaffected by online retail,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at the online jobs site Indeed. “Most people aren’t buying their lumber or potting soil online.”
But wages remain low: The median pay for retail workers is about $11.01 per hour, or $22,900 a year, according to BLS data.
The jump in employment is a departure from recent months: The retail sector lost 25,900 jobs in December but added 14,800 in January. (Warehouse jobs, which are not counted in the retail figures, grew by about 400 positions in February.)
“I did not expect a large increase in February, in all honesty,” said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist for the National Retail Federation, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of the industry. “This was a substantial increase at the industry level.”
General-merchandise stores such as Walmart, Target and Costco added 17,700 jobs, while clothing and accessories stores hired 14,900. A number of those newly created positions, economists said, were probably focused on retailers’ growing online and mobile businesses.
Walmart, for example, has hired more than 18,000 personal shoppers in recent years as it builds up its shop-online, pick-up-in-store service, executives said on a Tuesday call with reporters.
“Companies are putting more people on the floor,” Swonk said. “We don’t have a handle on whether they’re hiring for online operations vs. in-store, but we know they’re hiring.”