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The U.S. job market is still healthy, but it's slowing down as recession fears mount

A "Now Hiring" sign is displayed on a storefront in the Adams Morgan heighborhood in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 07, 2022 .
Anna Moneymaker
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Getty Images
A "Now Hiring" sign is displayed on a storefront in the Adams Morgan heighborhood in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 07, 2022 .

The U.S. job market closed out 2022 on a high note.

Employers added 223,000 jobs in December, capping a year in which the economy added 4.5 million jobs, more than refilling the deep hole left by the coronavirus pandemic two years earlier.

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While some big companies have announced job cuts in recent weeks, the overall labor market remains tight. The unemployment rate in December inched down to 3.5%, matching a half-century low.

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Demand for workers remained remarkably strong throughout the last year, even as the Federal Reserve was aggressively trying to slow the economy by raising interest rates, in an effort to fight inflation.

"The labor market's been this calm eye in the center of the storm," says Dave Gilbertson, vice president of UKG, which makes shift-scheduling software.

Hiring has slowed since the first half of last year, when employers were adding more than 400,000 jobs a month, on average. And a further slowdown is expected, as businesses brace for a possible recession.

"They're kind of pumping the brakes a little bit on hiring," Gilbertson says.

Businesses are holding onto their workers

So far, there's little evidence of widespread job cuts, despite high-profile layoff announcements this week from companies like Amazon and Salesforce. New claims for unemployment benefits remain at historically low levels.

Some businesses say they're reluctant to let employees go, even if demand drops, after struggling for much of the last two years to find enough workers.

More than 400,000 workers entered or re-entered the workforce last month, and the share of adults working or looking for work inched up by a tenth of a percent.

Many of the high-tech businesses that are cutting jobs had expanded rapidly in recent years.

"These firms benefited from a pandemic economy where people were at home, they were hungry for the Internet and hungry for devices, and spending was directed towards the services and the goods that tech was providing," says Nela Richardson, chief economist at the payroll processing company ADP.

"Now we're coming to a point where consumer spending has shifted again," she says. "Tech is responding by pulling back."

The Fed would welcome a cooler labor market

Financial firms are also cutting back on hiring, in the face of rising interest rates. And factories have scaled back hiring as well. Manufacturers added just 8,000 jobs in December, a quarter of the monthly average last year.

"We're waiting for demand to come back," says Tim Fiore, who conducts a monthly survey of factory managers for the Institute for Supply Management.

"The first half of 2023 is going to be sluggish," Fiore says. "But the second half of 2023 is going to be pretty strong."

The Federal Reserve would welcome some slowdown in hiring, especially if it helps to keep a lid on wage gains. The central bank is worried that rapid pay increases could add to inflation, especially in labor-intensive service businesses.

Average hourly wages in December were 4.6% higher than a year ago. The annual increase in November was initially reported as 5.1%, although that was revised down to 4.8%.

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

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.