The monthly employment report Friday could help answer a key question about the economy: Will the recently strong job growth slow once employers finish replacing the people they fired during the depths of the recession?
Over the past three months, job growth has averaged close to 250,000 a month. There are some signs that strong growth could continue. For instance, first-time claims for unemployment benefits last week fell to 357,000 — their lowest level in four years. When the number is consistently below 375,000, as it has been for months, it's a sign job growth is strong enough to bring down the unemployment rate.
But the consensus from a number of surveys of economists done by news organizations is that job growth was a little slower in March. The estimate is that about 200,000 net new jobs were created. That's in line with the private-job growth estimate reported by the payroll processing firm ADP earlier this week.
Will Job Growth Ease As Economy Slows?
That expected slowdown in job growth would go along with a slowdown in overall economic growth that economists have predicted. At the end of 2011, the economy was growing at a 3 percent annual rate. The view is that growth in the first part of this year is running closer to 2 percent to 2.5 percent, meaning job growth might be a little slower, too.
The other thing economists are factoring in is the much warmer than usual weather this winter, which may have abnormally boosted hiring. Since the Bureau of Labor Statistics adjusts the jobs numbers to smooth out seasonal differences, the job growth and the health of the job market may have been overstated in the past several months. And now economists are expecting the monthly numbers to drop off a bit.
The underlying job market may not actually have changed very much at all, but the job growth number may be a bit smaller because the government won't be boosting the numbers for seasonal adjustment purposes.
Unemployment Drop: Too Much, Too Soon?
The other important headline number in the monthly jobs report is the unemployment rate. The consensus is that it's going to stay where it's been for the previous couple of months at 8.3 percent.
And that has people a little bit worried, especially Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
He's worried that this big drop in the unemployment rate — from nearly 10 percent in November 2010 down to 8.3 percent at the beginning of this year — came during a period when the economy wasn't growing fast enough to bring the jobless rate down that quickly under the normal economic rule of thumb. The rule of thumb is that the economy would have had to grow at almost a full percentage point above its potential to do that, so somewhere above a 3 percent annual rate, but growth was actually well below that during that period.
Bernanke says the quick drop might have been a reversal of something that happened when the financial crisis hit in 2008. Employers panicked and fired more workers than you would have expected given the drop in economic activity.
So now the Fed thinks employers may have hired a lot of those folks back just to get to where they think their workforce needs to be. Then once that's over, which it may be already, job growth will drop off. That could mean the unemployment rate will come down more slowly but much more in line with the relatively unimpressive economic growth we've seen during this recovery.
The March unemployment report will give us some clues as to whether this is what's happening in the labor market.