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U.S. employers added 517,000 jobs last month. It's a surprisingly strong number

A 'help wanted' sign is displayed in a window of a store in Manhattan, New York City, on Dec. 2, 2022. U.S. employers added an unexpectedly strong 517,000 jobs in January, showcasing the labor market is red-hot. The unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in more than half a century.
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A 'help wanted' sign is displayed in a window of a store in Manhattan, New York City, on Dec. 2, 2022. U.S. employers added an unexpectedly strong 517,000 jobs in January, showcasing the labor market is red-hot. The unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in more than half a century.

The U.S. labor market got an unexpected jolt last month, as employers added 517,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in more than half a century.

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Not even the rain, snow and ice that blanketed much of the country last month was able to freeze the labor market.

Job gains for November and December were also revised up by a total of 71,000 jobs, according to a report Friday from the Labor Department. The January job tally is based on surveys conducted three weeks ago, when many states were in the grip of severe winter weather.

The data shows a job market that remains tight, even as the overall economy shows signs of slowing. The unemployment rate fell to 3.4% — a level not seen since May of 1969.

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Sectors that are hiring

Over the last three months, employers have added an average of 356,000 jobs every months. While that's a slowdown from a year ago, it's significantly faster job growth than in 2019, before the pandemic, when employers were adding an average of 164,000 jobs each month.

Despite some high-profile job cuts, particularly among high-tech companies, layoffs remain rare.

"The labor market remains extremely tight, with the unemployment rate at a 50-year low, job vacancies very high, and wage growth elevated," Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell said this week.

Restaurants and bars added 99,000 jobs last month, and a surge in new job openings suggests demand for workers in the industry remains strong. Construction companies added 25,000 jobs in January while factories added 19,000.

Manufacturing orders have slowed in recent months, but factories are reluctant to downsize their workforce, in hopes that business will rebound later in the year.

"I think what has happened is that companies have decided, 'let's not lay them off. It will be too hard to get them back and then we'll miss the upside in the second half [of the year]," said Tim Fiore, who conducts a monthly survey of factory managers for the Institute for Supply Management.

Wages are still rising, but not as much

A tight labor market means wages continued to rise, although not as fast as earlier in the pandemic. The central bank is closely monitoring wages because it's concerned that rising compensation could keep upward pressure on prices — especially in labor-intensive service industries — making it harder to bring inflation under control.

"My own view would be that you're not going to have a sustainable return to 2% inflation without a better balance in the labor market," Powell said.

Friday's report shows average wages in January were 4.4% higher than a year ago — compared to a 4.6% annual gain in December.

"Raises are moderating, but they're moderating from a higher level," said Nela Richardson, chief economist for the payroll processing company ADP.

Job growth has been strong for two years

The report also shows that job gains in 2021 and early 2022 were even stronger than initially reported.

Once a year, the Labor Department revises its job tally using more complete information from employers' tax records. The annual update shows that U.S. employers added 568,000 more jobs than initially counted in the twelve months ending last March.

In the 24 months since President Biden took office, employers have added a record 12.1 million jobs. The president is likely to tout that figure in his State of the Union address next week.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 2, 2023 at 10:00 PM MST
The story was published with an incorrect headline: "A blast of cold weather chilled the job market in January." The headline has been corrected to "U.S. employers added a whopping 517,000 jobs in January."
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.