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Trends: February Smallest Job Increase Since 2017

The numbers: American businesses and other employers created the fewest new jobs in February in 17 months, the latest sign of a broader slowdown in the U.S. economy.

This story by Jeffry Bartash originally appeared in MarketWatch.

The economy added just 20,000 new jobs last month, the smallest gain since September 2017, the government said Friday. 

The number of new nonfarm jobs created last month was well below the 172,000 MarketWatch forecast, but the slowdown was probably exaggerated by seasonal oddities that are unlikely to persist. The U.S. has been adding more than 200,000 new jobs a month for the past year.

Hiring sputtered in February in construction, retail and shipping and was muted in most other industries.

The pace of hiring is still strong enough, however, to keep downward pressure on the nation’s unemployment rate, especially in a tight labor market in which good help is hard to find.

The jobless rate slipped to 3.8 percent from 4 percent, aided by the return of government workers after the end of the partial federal shutdown in January. Last year unemployment fell to a half-century low of 3.7 percent.

An ultra-tight labor market, what’s more, is forcing companies to offer better pay and benefits to attract or retain workers. The amount of money the average worker earns jumped 11 cents an hour to $27.66 last month. 

The increase in pay in the past 12 months climbed to 3.4 percent, the biggest gain since the end of the last recession in 2009. While faster pay might spark fresh worries about inflation, so far there’s little sign that higher labor costs have done much if any harm.

The biggest dropoff in hiring in February took place in construction, where employment fell 31,000 after a 53,000 increase in January. The sharp swing in construction employment is likely evidence that government statisticians had trouble with seasonal adjustments.

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