Apr 4, 2023 - Economy

The job market is (still) weird

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

Every month, we turn to the Labor Department's Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey to dive into the guts of what's really happening among businesses and their workers.

Why it matters: The answer in February was a weird one. There are signs the labor market is finally cooling, alongside evidence that conditions remain as tight — perhaps even overheated — as ever.

Driving the news: The number of job openings employers reported dropped by 632,000 in February, reaching the lowest level since May 2021. That's consistent with a story in which employers react to a slowing economy by pulling back on hiring.

Yes, but: The very same report showed that hiring remained steady, and the number of people laid off or discharged from their jobs fell. Meanwhile, voluntary quits actually rose.

  • None of those are what you expect to see in a labor market slump. Normally, downturns cause companies to slow hiring dramatically, fire workers, and prompt those remaining to hold onto their jobs for dear life.
  • And while the ratio of job openings to unemployed Americans fell in February, it remained in the same historically high range it has been in since late 2021, with just under two job openings per jobless adult.

Zoom out: Employers seem to be pulling back from their breakneck, hire-at-all-cost stance of 2022. But at the same time, notwithstanding headlines about tech and media layoffs, they aren't actually cutting jobs.

  • Meanwhile, workers feel as empowered as ever, still quitting at historically high rates, evidently confident they can find new work.

Between the lines: The new data is consistent with a possible narrative, advanced by Federal Reserve governor Chris Waller last year, in which inflationary pressure abates and the labor market cools down through companies pulling back on once-ambitious hiring plans, instead of layoffs.

  • But while the openings number moved in a way consistent with that theory in February, the longer-term pattern is less clear. At a minimum, the adjustment is happening extremely slowly.
  • The new data is also consistent with "labor hoarding" in which employers, burned by the difficulty hiring the last couple of years, are avoiding layoffs and continuing to hire even as demand softens.

The bottom line: There are hints of a broad softening in the job market ahead contained in the job openings data. But for now, workers are still in fine shape.

Go deeper