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Despite robust jobs report, some sectors are cutting staff in anticipation of a recession

“The most concerning thing is the loss of jobs in manufacturing, which we’ve all been on red alert for. That’s not a good sign for investment in this country,” said one economist.
Image: GM assembly line
Workers inspect General Motors Co. (GM) Chevrolet 2019 Silverado HD and 2019 GMC Sierra HD pickup trucks on the assembly line at the GM plant in Flint, Michigan, on Feb. 5, 2019.Jeff Kowalsky / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The people who control corporate America’s purse strings are worried — and pockets of weakness in the March jobs report fueled fears that this anxiety is starting to create a drag on the labor market.

Market watchers breathed a sigh of relief when the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Friday that the economy added 196,000 jobs in March and upward revisions to January and February figures added another 14,000 jobs. The unemployment rate stayed at 3.8 percent. “Further sharp declines in unemployment are unlikely, assuming a gradual increase in participation,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a note to clients.

“The three-month moving average at 180,000 is exactly where we’d expect it to be,” said Josh Wright, chief economist at iCIMS. “I think we’re heading closer to the 150,000 range over the next few months.”

Although a wide variety of industries saw job gains, labor market experts said the kinds of jobs that are being shed reveal where the economy is beginning to show strain.

“There was some very weak job growth for some blue-collar sector jobs,” said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at, pointing to anemic growth in sectors like transportation and mining.

“The most concerning thing really… is seeing the loss of jobs in manufacturing, which we’ve all been on red alert for,” Wright said, noting weakness in durable goods jobs in particular. “That’s not a good sign for investment in this country,” he said.

“The areas where we’re seeing [cuts] the most are retail, autos, and energy — those are all areas where there have been big changes in consumer preferences,” said Andrew Challenger, vice president at executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Higher labor and input costs, along with decreasing demand for American exports — side effects of the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and its main trading partners — are weighing on these industries, leaving them with little margin for error. “There are reasons those companies are making those decisions outside immediate economic forecasts, but I think it probably is a contributing factor,” Challenger said.

“Chief financial officers tend not to like uncertainty, and recent trade policy has contributed to it,” said Greg Dickinson, managing director and leader of Deloitte CFO Signals, a quarterly survey that measures sentiment among U.S. and global corporate finance chiefs. In particular, he added, “[Manufacturing] CFOs continue to voice concern about the effects of trade policy on both their input costs and on the demand for their products.”

In its new survey, Deloitte found that a whopping 84 percent of chief executives expect a downturn or a recession in the U.S. by the end of 2020, and 15 percent say they already see evidence of a downturn at their firms.

This could be bad news for job seekers. “Business sentiment has a large impact on headcount decisions,” Dickinson said. “One of the first impacts of negative sentiment is slowing or stopping the addition of talent.”

The CFO Signals survey found that shrinking the employee roster is a primary strategy corporate finance chiefs rely on to mitigate the risks of a downturn, with 54 percent saying they either will or already have cut back on hiring. One in five say they will implement staffing cuts — and 18 percent say they have already begun to reduce headcount.

Private-sector job growth tracked by ADP and Moody’s Analytics found that just 129,000 jobs were added in March — a surprising miss from the 173,000 estimated by economists polled by Dow Jones. And a new report from Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that, while American companies announced fewer job cuts last month than in February, first quarter job cuts climbed by 36 percent on a year-over-year basis, the highest first quarter total since 2009.

“In today’s economy, labor makes up the vast majority of production costs,” Chamberlain said. “People are the most expensive part of any business operation today, for the most part.”

“Companies need to get ahead of any type of a downturn,” Challenger said, because even downsizing costs money in severance and administrative expenses. incurs expenses. “It’s not a cost companies can turn off very quickly,” he pointed out, which could prompt some businesses to proactively shed workers.

“Employee salaries are a big fixed cost. Companies may say, we see a need to cut in the future,” Challenger said. “It is a little bit alarming.”