Is there a labor shortage? What the May jobs report tells us

Is there a labor shortage? What the May jobs report tells us
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A help wanted sign is displayed outside of a business before Memorial Day near the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey.

Spencer Platt | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The weaker-than-expected April jobs report fueled speculation of U.S. labor shortages and led some state officials to declare an early end to enhanced unemployment benefits.  

Yet forecasters hoping for clarity from the May tally may be left scratching their heads.

It’s hard to draw conclusions about sustained weakness or labor-supply issues from the data published Friday, according to economists. The May report offers something of a mixed bag and somewhat contradictory data points, they said.

“It’s a Rorschach test,” according to Nick Bunker, an economist at job site Indeed. “It’s a bunch of ink on a piece of paper, and everyone is seeing different images.”

May jobs report

On the other hand, job growth accelerated in May — new payrolls doubled from April. And the last few recessions were characterized by long job recoveries, economists said.

May’s job gains are also roughly equivalent to the average over the past three months — suggesting they were in line with what expectations should perhaps have been, Bunker said.

“I think it’s a story of expectation versus reality,” he said. “What’s a good pace of growth is sort of in the eye of the beholder.”

Labor force participation

Rising wages

Perhaps the most pronounced evidence of a labor shortage in the May jobs report is wage growth, especially in the labor and hospitality sector, according to Daniel Zhao, a senior economist at Glassdoor, a job and recruiting site.

Rising wages suggest businesses struggling to hire may be paying more to attract workers.

Unfortunately, the [May] report isn’t going to end this debate about labor shortages. Both sides have ammo to use to bolster their arguments.

Daniel Zhao

senior economist at Glassdoor

Hourly pay jumped nearly 9% over the past year, to $15.87, for non-managerial workers in the sector, which includes restaurants, hotels and bars, for example. (Earnings grew by $0.19 an hour from April.)

That growth is significant since leisure and hospitality seems to be where hiring challenges are being most widely reported, Zhao said.

However, the bump may not be solely — or even mostly — attributable to businesses raising pay.

Critics of the labor-shortage argument point to other data points, such as average hours worked remaining relatively flat. (Businesses tend to boost hours for existing workers if they can’t onboard other staff.)

“Unfortunately, the [May] report isn’t going to end this debate about labor shortages,” Zhao said. “Both sides have ammo to use to bolster their arguments.”

What’s causing supply constraints?

To the extent that there are labor shortages, hiring challenges are likely to be temporary, according to economists.

Twenty-five states are ending enhanced federal unemployment benefits earlier than their official Sept. 6 expiration to try to encourage reentry to the labor force.

The earliest that the states, all led by Republican governors, are doing so is June 12.

“The most vocal source of speculation [for labor shortages] is that the supplement to weekly unemployment benefits is enticing a lot of people to stay home,” said Erica Groshen, a labor economist at Cornell University and a former commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics during the Obama administration. “I think that’s far too simplistic.”

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