US jobs increased more than expected in February amid falling new Covid-19 cases, quickening vaccination rates and additional pandemic relief money from the government, putting the labor market recovery back on firmer footing and on course for further gains in the months ahead.
Nonfarm payrolls surged 379,000 jobs last month after rising 166,000 in January, the Labor Department said on Friday. In December, payrolls fell for the first time in eight months. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast February payrolls increasing by 182,000 jobs.
The closely watched employment report also offered a reminder that as the United States enters the second year of the coronavirus pandemic the recovery remains excruciatingly slow, with millions of Americans experiencing long spells of joblessness and permanent unemployment.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Thursday offered an optimistic view of the labor market, but cautioned a return to full employment this year was "highly unlikely."
Though the unemployment rate fell to 6.2% last month from 6.3% in January, it continues to be understated by people misclassifying themselves as being "employed but absent from work."
The labor market has been slow to respond to the drop in daily coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, which helped fuel a boost in consumer spending in January that prompted economists to sharply upgrade their gross domestic product growth estimates for the first quarter.
Historically, employment lags GDP growth by about a quarter, but the catching up started in February, a year after the economy fell into recession at the start of the US Covid-19 outbreak.
Though millions are unemployed, companies are struggling to find workers, which is contributing to holding back job growth.
The pandemic is keeping some workers at home, reluctant to accept or return to jobs that could expose them to the virus.
It has also disproportionately affected women who have been forced to drop out of the labor force to look after children as many schools remain closed for in-person learning. According to Census Bureau data, around 10 million mothers living with their own school-age children were not actively working in January, 1.4 million more than during the same month in 2020.
The job vacancies are mainly in the high-growth industries that have fared well throughout the pandemic, such as information technology, engineering, construction, customer support, manufacturing, and accounting and finance.
The virus has greatly altered the economic landscape and many of the services industry jobs lost will likely not return. Given the difficulties of retraining, structural unemployment could account for a bigger share of joblessness in the near future. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Economists believe the labor market will gather steam in the spring and through summer, with vaccinations increasing daily, even though the pace of decline in Covid-19 infections has flattened recently. A boost to hiring is also expected from President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion recovery plan, which is under consideration by Congress.