November 6, 2018
By Alan Tonelson
If today’s government data on U.S. jobs openings don’t prompt loud mea culpas and apologies from the tariff-alarmists in the Mainstream Media and elsewhere in America’s globalization cheerleading establishment, I don’t know what will.
Recall that Americans have been swamped in recent months with reports that President Trump’s trade curbs have already been decimating American manufacturing. And since they have been in place the longest, his metals tariffs (on most steel and aluminum imports) have been treated as prime examples, with metals-using industries being the prime victims.
But the new figures on job openings in major sectors of the economy (contained in the latest monthly release of the “JOLTS” numbers – the “job openings and labor turnover series”) are simply the latest statistics thoroughly debunking these claims.
Here are the results for job openings from April (because the metals tariffs began to be imposed in late March) through September (the most recent month covered by the JOLTS reports):
private sector: +2.30 percent
manufacturing: +7.08 percent
durable goods: +7.47 percent
As has been the case with so much other data, the durable goods super-sector of manufacturing – the portion of industry containing the biggest metals-using industries – outperformed the rest of manufacturing and the entire economy in the number of employment opportunities it claimed were available.
And although the number of job openings in durable goods dipped from August to September (whose figures are still preliminary), they fell much less than in the rest of the economy.
private sector: -2.85 percent
manufacturing -4.72 percent
durable goods -0.66 percent
Moreover, the 302,000 durable goods jobs openings reported preliminarily in September were the second largest number on record (going back to late 2000). The all-time high? August’s 304,000.
Some critics maintain that employers have incentives to exaggerate their claims of job vacancies. The motives cited include reinforcing contentions of “skills gaps” and other forms of labor shortages; rationalizing the persistence of high unemployment rates or sluggish wage growth; and pushing government or schools to take on worker training responsibilities (and expenses) that employers are loathe to assume. It’s also easy to see how exaggerated job openings claims can be used to bolster arguments for more immigration – which of course is also a tempting strategy for keeping wages down by increasing labor supply relative to demand.
But even if such exaggeration is rife, why would it be so much more important in durable goods manufacturing than in the rest of the economy? Further, why would employers have any reason to overstate the number of vacancies they’re trying to fill if they believed that their businesses were being swamped by steep, tariffs-led costs increases, or were about to? Wouldn’t they be trying to shed payroll instead? As a result, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the JOLTS openings numbers simply add to the evidence that, despite the claims of actual or impending tariffs-mageddon, metals-using industries continue to be faring just fine.
Interestingly, workers in durable goods sectors don’t appear to share this optimism fully, according to the JOLTS data. For the figures also measure the numbers of employees voluntarily leaving their jobs – a clear sign of confidence that lots of new opportunities are available. Here are are the April-through-September results:
private sector: +8.53 percent
manufacturing: -2.94 percent
durable goods: -9.48 percent
Clearly, durable goods workers have been displaying less confidence about reemployment opportunities than their counterparts in the rest of manufacturing, and much less than private sector workers overall. And these results are mirrored in the August-to-September numbers:
private sector: -1.26 percent
manufacturing: -6.60 percent
durable goods: -11.76 percent
Nonetheless, in absolute terms, all these quits levels – even for durable goods – remain pretty high by recent standards. And for durables, they’re somewhat volatile, possibly because the absolute numbers have always been on the small side. Indeed, durable goods quits increased by 6.19 percent month-to-month as recently as July. And the August-to-September drop-off was the biggest sequential decline in percentage terms since the 15.70 percent monthly nosedive in August, 2017 – after which the numbers of quits steadily recovered.
As always, these trends could change (or, with the quits rate) intensify. It’s also possible that the President’s more sweeping tariffs on imports from China will be game-changers. (The first round dates only from early July, and the second, much larger round, went into effect in mid-September.) For now, however, the only real news about the economic effect of these levies is that they’ve showed no signs of slowing the recovery’s current momentum. Accept no substitutes.
Alan Tonelson is Founder of the blog RealityChek – www.alantonelson.wordpress.com – which covers a wide range of domestic and international policy issues along with political and social trends.
For 18 years before leaving to launch RealityChek, Tonelson followed the impact of globalization on the U.S. economy, domestic manufacturing, and U.S. national security for the U.S. Business and Industry Council. This national business organization represents nearly 2,000 domestic American companies, most of them small and medium-sized manufacturers.
Alan Tonelson is a regular columnist with Industry Today.