June's employment report surprised most analysts, as US businesses added 372,000 jobs, way above expectations. The strong numbers dampened talk of impending recession, but what do they say about the strength of the economy overall? By themselves, they don’t really say much, according to New York Times economics columnist Peter Coy. To get a truer sense of what’s happening—and what the future may hold—Coy says to pay attention to productivity, defined by the BLS as output per hour worked. That number shrank in the first quarter at a surprising 7.3% annual rate and is "on track for one of its worst 12-month performances" since 1947, Coy writes. That means GDP isn't growing despite strong hiring.
The pandemic has a lot to do with it, but not for reasons most people might have expected in 2020. Back then, the economy experienced a productivity surge, which many analysts chalked up to deployment of new technologies to accommodate a homebound workforce. But it turns out 2020’s labor output was skewed by a change in the mix of workers, as lower-skilled, lower-paid workers were laid off but skilled workers remained.
Low-skilled workers are in high demand now, forcing companies to hire "less productive workers that in normal circumstances would not be active," and output is inevitably falling as a result. Increased hiring and decreased productivity tend to signal that "businesses’ costs are rising and profits are getting squeezed," and that scenario tends to end with layoffs. Read the whole column here. (Read more productivity stories.)