By Jonnelle Marte
(Reuters) – In the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic upended the U.S. economy, the labor market has rebounded far faster than most had predicted after roughly 22 million jobs were wiped out in the space of two months in the spring of 2020.
As remarkable as the rebound has proven to be, the comeback from the low point in April 2020 has not been evenly spread across industries and demographic groups, with restaurant employment, for instance, still in a deep hole and the share of Black women with jobs trailing the recovery in other groups.
Here’s a look at some of the ways the labor market has changed over the past two years.
INDUSTRY MIX DIFFERENT
A look at the labor market recovery by industry sends a message about the ways consumer behavior and worker preferences have changed and how health restrictions affected some industries more than others.
Employment for leisure and hospitality businesses plunged at the start of the pandemic and is still 9% below where it was in February of 2020, data from the Labor Department’s nonfarm payrolls report for February showed on Friday.
That is a sign that demand for travel and dining out has not fully recovered and that employers are still struggling to recruit workers for those face-to-face service jobs, even as health restrictions continue to be eased.
Hiring for transportation and warehousing businesses, in contrast, rose early on as more people turned to online shopping and food delivery services. Those gains have continued, with industry employment now 10% above pre-pandemic levels, far more than any other sector.
RACIAL GAPS NARROWING
The share of Black Americans who are either working or looking for work, known as the labor force participation rate, was equal to the share for white workers in both January and February of this year.
That participation gap between the two races typically narrows late in economic expansions when labor markets are tight and businesses are competing more intensely for workers.
BLACK WOMEN STILL LAG
Black women, who faced substantial job losses at the start of the pandemic, still have more ground to recover than other groups to close the jobs hole left by the crisis.
The employment-to-population ratio for Black women, or the share of the population that is working, is still 2.9 percentage points below where it was in February 2020 after it dropped last month. That is nearly double the 1.5-percentage-point shortfall faced by all women and almost three times the gap left for all men when compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Still, Black and Hispanic workers have seen employment rebound strongly over the past year, with their gains outpacing those for white workers. If that trend continues, it should help close those racial gaps.
NO DIPLOMA, NO PROBLEM
In another sign that the labor market is creating more opportunities for workers on the margins, the unemployment rate for people with less than a high school diploma dropped to 4.3% last month, the lowest since the Labor Department started tracking it in 1992.
In all, just 388,000 people aged 25 and above who had not completed high school were without a job in February, roughly a fifth of the number out of work in April 2020. That is also nearly 100,000 below the previous record low in September 2019.
The number of workers being added to company payrolls has remained robust over the last year, averaging more than 550,000 a month, a level never seen prior to the pandemic. Moreover, the breadth of hiring is as wide as it has been in more than two decades.
The Labor Department’s diffusion indexes, a gauge of how widespread hiring activity is across the manufacturing sector and private-sector industries overall, shows more industries adding staff over the last 12 months, on average, than at any time since 1998. They’re also up substantially from where they were in the months before the pandemic struck.
With the two diffusion indexes now near where they have peaked in the past, the question is whether the gains will continue to be as broad-based as the employment recovery matures this year.