U.S. employers unexpectedly hired at a slower pace in September than in August, with labor supply shortages and virus-related impacts still exerting considerable pressure on the economic recovery.
The Labor Department released its September jobs report Friday morning. Here were the main metrics from the report, compared to consensus estimates compiled by Bloomberg:
Change in non-farm payrolls, September: +194,000 vs. +500,000 expected and a revised +366,000 in August
Unemployment rate: 4.8% vs. 5.1% expected, 5.2% in August
Average hourly earnings, month-over-month: 0.6% vs. 0.4% expected and a revised 0.4% in August
Average hourly earnings, year-over-year: 4.6% vs. 4.6% expected and a revised 4.0% in August
Non-farm payrolls were expected to pick up from August's much weaker-than-expected print, when renewed fears over the coronavirus deterred more workers from reentering the labor market. Friday's report did come alongside upward revision to each of the last two payrolls reports, with August payrolls revised up by 131,000 to reach 366,000, and July's payrolls revised up by 38,000 to 1.091 million.
The September showed a ninth consecutive month of net payroll gains in the U.S. economy, albeit at a much slower-than-expected rate. And even after months of growth, total employment has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. The civilian labor force was still down by about 3.1 million individuals compared to February 2020 as of September.
The biggest drag to the headline payrolls figure for September came from the government, with public-sector payrolls dropping by a net 123,000. Local government education jobs specifically fell by 144,000, and state government education roles declined by 17,000.
"Most back-to-school hiring typically occurs in September. Hiring this September was lower than usual, resulting in a decline after seasonal adjustment," the Labor Department wrote in its report on Friday. "Recent employment changes are challenging to interpret, as pandemic-related staffing fluctuations in public and private education have distorted the normal seasonal hiring and layoff patterns."
Other sectors included in the report were more robust for September. Leisure and hospitality employment, which includes restaurant workers and other high-contact areas especially exposed to coronavirus-related impacts, increased by 74,000 last month, or nearly double the gain from August. And retail trade and transportation and warehousing jobs each rose by around 50,000 each.
Even given the disappointing overall pace of hiring, September's unemployment rate improved much more than expected, or to 4.8% versus the 5.2% in August. However, that came alongside an unexpected drop in the labor force participation rate, which ticked down to 61.6% from August's 61.7%.
“Today’s report has the unemployment rate down to 4.8%, a significant improvement from when I took office and a sign that our recovery is moving forward, even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” President Joe Biden said in public remarks Friday afternoon. “Working Americans are seeing their paychecks go up as well.”
And in terms of average hourly earnings, economists were looking to see a strong print on wage growth, especially on a year-over-year basis. Wage gains have come as employers hiked wages and incentives to compete for workers to fill widespread vacancies and meet elevated demand. Average hourly earnings rose at a faster pace in September and, at 4.6%, reached their quickest rate since February.
Wage growth also unexpectedly accelerated on a month-over-month basis, reflecting in part a slower return of service-sector workers on the lower end of the wage scale. Average hourly earnings rose 0.6% on a month-over-month basis, compared to the 0.4% rate posted in August.
For market participants, the September jobs report serves as a key indicator for the timing of a monetary policy move by the Federal Reserve.
Fed officials have suggested the economy had already met the central bank's goals for inflation, and that the only hurdle still left to clear was in the labor market. Last month, Fed Chair Jerome Powell suggested an at least decent September jobs report would be enough to suggest the economy had improved to the point of no longer needing the Fed's extraordinary monetary policy support.
"It wouldn't take a knockout, great, super strong employment report," Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said during his latest post-FOMC meeting press conference in September. "It would take a reasonably good employment report for me to feel like that test is met."
The Fed has already signaled it expects to begin tapering its crisis-era asset purchase program by year-end, or slowing the pace of purchases of mortgage-backed securities and Treasuries from its current rate of $120 billion per month.
"The disappointing 194,000 gain in non-farm payrolls in September probably still counts as 'decent' enough for the Fed to begin tapering its asset purchases next month," Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist for Capital Economics, wrote in a note Friday morning. "But alongside signs that activity growth is slowing sharply, at the same time as worsening labor shortages are putting serious upward pressure on wage growth, it looks set to leave Fed officials in an uncomfortable position over the coming months."
Heading into Friday's report, other employment-related indicators had pointed to a firming labor market. ADP's private payrolls report on Wednesday showed a better-than-expected 568,000 jobs came back in the private sector last month. Both the Institute for Supply Management's manufacturing and service sector employment indexes held in expansionary territory in September, and weekly unemployment claims dropped to a pandemic-era low at the start of the month.
Emily McCormick is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter