The U.S. economy added 103,000 jobs in March, maintaining a steady track of growth, but wages barely budged, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday.
The jobless rate stayed at 4.1 percent, while average hourly pay grew just 2.7 percent from March 2017.
Robert Frick, corporate economist at the Navy Federal Credit Union, said the numbers reflect a healthy long-term trend — companies have hired an average of 200,000 workers each month this year — but flat wages concern him as the country hits 90 straight months of employment gains.
“In previous expansions, wages were growing by 4 percent annualized,” he said. “We’re in pay cut territory right now.”
Still, analysts say job seekers — the unemployed, the underpaid, those who desire a change — are in great shape, according to Dan North, chief economist at Euler Hermes North America, a credit insurance firm.
There is now a position open for every unemployed person in the country, and the share of the labor force — Americans who are working or job hunting — has crept up this year, too. That's good news to economists, who want to see the labor force participation rate return to pre-recession levels of about 66 percent. It stood at 62.9 percent in March, slightly higher than January's 62.7 percent.
The jobless rates held steady in March by age, gender and race.
“It’s a pretty solid economic picture altogether,” North said, though job creation slowed from February's unusually large burst of 326,000 positions.
Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com, said the economy isn’t likely to keep churning out 300,000-plus jobs each month as the labor market keeps tightening. For the last six months, the jobless rate has stayed at 4.1 percent, a 17-year low.
“It isn’t out of the realm of possibilities that we could see a jobless rate as low as 3.5 percent, last seen in 1969 when the Beatles were still cranking out hits,” he said.
But some companies have expressed concern about rising trade tensions.
President Trump announced last month that he planned to slap tariffs on $50 billion in imported Chinese goods, prompting the Asian giant to respond Wednesday with levies on U.S. soybeans, pork and cars, among other products. On Thursday, Trump ordered his chief trade negotiator to consider imposing tariffs on an additional $100 billion of Chinese products.
Two employer surveys released this week by the Institute for Supply Management, a trade group in Arizona, found uncertainty around trade is already rattling businesses.
Respondents in the construction industry told the ISM that “accurate, long-term planning has become incredibly difficult, as distributors that historically held costs for at least 30 days are now, in some cases, committing to only seven days, as prices can change drastically in that time.”
Manufacturers, meanwhile, reported that the tariffs Trump imposed last month on steel and aluminum imports have raised prices, caused “panic buying” and led to “inventory shortages.”
But Becky Frankiewicz, president of ManpowerGroup North America, which connected job seekers to roughly 300,000 positions last year, said growth across the economy appears strong.
Manufacturing maintained its hiring streak in March, adding 22,000 jobs, with the bulk coming from the making of durable goods, such as washers, dryers and cars. (The sector overall has grown by 232,000 positions over the past year.)
Health care jobs increased by 22,000, keeping pace with its monthly growth average, while mining expanded by 9,000 positions.
Construction, however, lost 15,000 jobs — a seasonal dip, thanks to the unusually cold weather, analysts said.
Worries about tariffs haven’t dampened the need for workers, Frankiewicz said, but they could be keeping pay down.
“We’ve heard from clients who say ‘we could do something with wages, but we’re waiting to see the impact of tariffs on pricing,’ ” she said. “Uncertainty is delaying some investment.”