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February Employment Report Offers A Mixed Picture Of The Job Market


The U.S. job market had been racing ahead for months. In February, it braked to a sudden halt. The Labor Department said just 20,000 jobs were created last month. Economists say the disappointing number may turn out to be something of a fluke. Here's NPR's Jim Zarroli.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: There was no getting around it. The number of jobs created in February was a surprise and a disappointment. It was the job market's worst performance in nearly a year and a half. Heidi Shierholz is with the Economic Policy Institute.

HEIDI SHIERHOLZ: The 20,000 jobs added in February was much, much lower than anyone expected.

ZARROLI: But Shierholz cautioned against reading too much into the numbers. She points out that they came after a blockbuster January.

SHIERHOLZ: One month's numbers do not make a trend.

ZARROLI: Shierholz says when you average out the job gains over the past few months, you get something closer to 186,000, which is a good number. Why has there been so much volatility? Shierholz says it may have been the big snowstorm last month. She notes that the biggest losses were in construction and leisure and hospitality.

SHIERHOLZ: Those are the kinds of industries that you see being disproportionately affected by bad weather.

ZARROLI: For his part, President Trump chose to gloss over the weak job growth and focus on the more positive parts of the report. Unemployment fell from 4 to 3.8 percent, and wages rose a healthy amount.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think the big news really was that wages went up, and that's great for the American worker. That's something people - I don't know if they ever expected to see it.

ZARROLI: After years of tepid growth, wages have been rising lately, which usually happens in a tight labor market like the one we have today. But Lindsey Piegza, chief economist at Stifel Fixed Income, says, enjoy it while it lasts.

LINDSEY PIEGZA: And unfortunately, at this point, the concern is that the recent gains in wages are going to prove very short-lived.

ZARROLI: Like a lot of economists, she sees the U.S. economy slowing, and that will inevitably have an effect on wages. Today's report adds fuel to the debate over whether the strong economy will last and how much American workers can hope to benefit. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.