Even as recession fears grow, a government survey released Tuesday showed that businesses were continuing to hire, with 11.5 million jobs listed as available in March, a record high since tracking began, while unemployment remained low.
The number of “quits” — a measurement of the amount of workers voluntarily leaving jobs — also reached a high, an indicator that many workers are confident they can leave their jobs and find employment that better suits their desires or needs.
The release, from the Labor Department, is yet another indicator of the anomalous nature of the economy as it recovers from the pandemic recession. A resurgence of consumer spending and business investment is colliding with a messy reordering of the supply of goods and labor.
After a sharp climb last year, the number of job openings plateaued somewhat — though the March reading suggests that the declining amount of coronavirus concerns among some experts and the average consumer — paired with the rolling back of public health restrictions and the start of the summer hiring season — are increasing businesses’ appetites for more workers.
The strong demand for workers could be a signal that economic activity may plow through the challenges presented by inflation, which is at a 40-year high, and the discombobulation of global supply chains exacerbated by coronavirus outbreaks in Asia and war in Eastern Europe. Employers are still complaining about labor shortages while many workers — energized by the discussion about “essential work” during the pandemic and buoyed by excess savings — have a degree of bargaining power they haven’t had in decades.
That has led to a tense, politically charged dynamic in which rising wages are a growing concern for large and small businesses trying to maintain their profit margins, even though compensation increases haven’t kept up with price increases. The Federal Reserve is raising the cost of borrowing as part of an effort to cool consumer spending, business lending and demand for workers. Markets expect the Fed to announce a hefty half-percentage point increase in its benchmark interest rate on Wednesday.
“We’re learning a lot about how structurally fragile our economy is,” said Claudia Sahm, a former Federal Reserve economist, citing a dependence on “endless low wage workers and just-in-time supplies of goods” for keeping consumer prices depressed for many years.
The employment cost index, which tracks wages and benefits, jumped by the most on record in the first quarter of this year, according to Labor Department figures released last week.
Layoffs and discharges remained uncommon, and relatively flat compared to the previous month, at 1.4 million.