US job growth far below expectations in April amid labour shortages

People waiting in a line outside a newly reopened career centre for in-person appointments in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 15, 2021.
People waiting in a line outside a newly reopened career centre for in-person appointments in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 15, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US employers hired far fewer workers than expected in April, likely frustrated by labour shortages, leaving them scrambling to met booming demand as the economy reopens amid rapidly improving public health and massive financial help from the government.

Non-farm payrolls increased by only 266,000 jobs last month after rising by 770,000 in March, the Labour Department said in its closely watched employment report on Thursday (May 6).

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls advancing by 978,000 jobs.

The jobs report, the first since the White House's US$1.9 trillion (S$2.5 trillion) Covid-19 rescue package was approved in March, will probably do little to change expectations that the economy entered the second quarter with strong momentum and was on track for its best performance this year in almost four decades.

A year ago, the economy purged a record 20.679 million jobs as it reeled from mandatory closures of non-essential businesses to slow the first wave of Covid-19 infections. This week, new claims for unemployment benefits have dropped below 500,000 for the first-time since the pandemic started.

Americans over the age of 16 are now eligible to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, leading states like New York and New Jersey to lift most of their capacity restrictions on businesses.

But the resulting burst in demand, which contributed to the economy's 6.4 per cent annualised growth pace in the first quarter has triggered shortages of labour and raw materials.

From manufacturing to restaurants, employers are scrambling for workers. A range of factors, including parents still at home caring for children, coronavirus-related retirements and generous unemployment checks, are blamed for the labour shortages. The moderate pace of hiring could last at least until September when the enhanced unemployment benefits run out.

The labour market remains supported by very accommodative fiscal and monetary policy. President Joe Biden plans to spend another US$4 trillion on education and childcare, middle- and low-income families, infrastructure and jobs. The Federal Reserve has signaled it intends to leave its benchmark interest rate near zero and continue to pump money into the economy through bond purchases for a while.

The unemployment rate rose to 6.1 per cent in April from 6.0 per cent in March. The jobless rate has been understated by people misclassifying themselves as being "employed but absent from work." Millions of Americans remain out of work and many have permanently lost jobs because of the pandemic.