Massachusetts employers boosted hiring last month after a tough August, a sign the labor shortage may finally be starting to ease.
The state gained 11,900 jobs in September, up from 3,400 in the prior month, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said Friday. For some pre-pandemic context: In the year before COVID-19 entered our lexicon, job growth averaged 4,500 a month.
Nearly 12,000 people entered the labor force last month, the most since December, as more workers found a job or began looking for one. Federal jobless benefits ended at the start of September, which may have prompted some people to begin hunting for work.
The influx of job seekers pushed the unemployment rate up to 5.2 percent from 5 percent in August, but that increase should be reversed as the would-be workers land jobs.
The modest improvement in the Massachusetts job market compares with a gloomier picture at the national level. US payrolls increased in September at the slowest pace of the year, the Labor Department said two weeks ago. The jobless rate fell to 4.8 percent from 5.2 percent, mostly because people left the workforce.
While the state’s jobs news is good, it’s too soon to call an end to the tight labor market that has confounded businesses all year.
State employment data are more volatile than the national numbers, and subject to substantial revisions. The swings have been amplified this year by the ups and downs of the pandemic, as well as by supply-chain disruptions that have left many companies with a dearth of products to sell.
And many businesses still say they can’t find enough workers with the skills needed for their open positions.
“Nobody’s drinking the champagne yet,” said Greg Reibman, chief executive of the Charles River Regional Chamber of Commerce. “In talking to my members, everyone says we have so far to go.”
The state has 217,000 fewer jobs than it did in February 2020, the month before COVID hit. The jobless rate stands 1.7 percentage points above where it was at the start of the pandemic.
But things seem to be heading in the right direction.
Initial weekly jobless claims, a proxy for layoffs, are down by 40 percent since August compared with the pace in the first half of the year. Also since August: fewer people are collecting weekly jobless benefits than in February 2020.
The government sector, which includes public school teachers, shed 7,100 jobs. But the decline may have been exaggerated by seasonal adjustments. In its national report earlier this month, the Labor Department noted a big loss in public education jobs when seasonally adjusted, but said school hiring actually increased on an unadjusted basis.
The labor shortage may continue to ease now that the government has authorized COVID booster shots for many Americans and may soon approve vaccines for children ages 5-11.
“COVID is still calling the shots here,” said Robert Nakosteen, executive editor of MassBenchmarks, which tracks the state’s economy, and professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Containing COVID is the best prescription for the economy.