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    The Fed Is Eyeing the Job Market, but It’s Difficult to Read

    Fed officials are watching labor trends as they contemplate when to cut rates. But different measures are telling different stories.The Federal Reserve spent much of 2022 and 2023 narrowly focusing on inflation as policymakers set interest rates: Prices were rising way too fast, so they became the central bank’s top priority. But now that inflation has cooled, officials are more clearly factoring the job market into their decisions again.One potential challenge? It’s a very difficult moment to assess exactly what monthly labor market data are telling us.Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said during a news conference on Wednesday that the way the job market shaped up in coming months could help to guide whether and when the central bank lowered interest rates this year. A substantial weakening could prod policymakers to cut, he suggested. If job growth remains rapid and inflation remains stuck, on the other hand, the combination could keep the Fed from lowering interest rates anytime soon.But it is tough to guess which of those scenarios may play out — and it is trickier than usual to determine how hot today’s job market is, especially in real time. Fed officials will get their latest reading on Friday morning, when the Labor Department releases its April employment report.Hiring has been rapid in recent months. That would typically make economists nervous that the economy was on the cusp of overheating: Businesses would risk competing for the same workers, pushing up wages in a way that could eventually drive up prices.But this hiring boom is different. It has come as a wave of immigrants and workers coming in from the labor market’s sidelines have helped to notably increase the supply of applicants. That has allowed companies to hire without depleting the labor pool.Yet the jump in available workers has also meant that a primary measure that economists use in assessing the job market’s strength — payroll gains — is no longer providing a clear signal. That leaves economists turning to other indicators to evaluate the strength of the job market and to forecast its forward momentum. And those measures are delivering different messages.Wage growth is still very strong by some gauges, but it seems to be cooling by others. Job openings have been coming down, the unemployment rate has ticked up recently (particularly for Black workers) and hiring expectations in business surveys have wobbled.The takeaway is that this seems to be a strong job market, but exactly how strong is hard to know. It is even harder to guess how much oomph will remain in the months to come. If job gains were to slow, would that be a sign that the economy was beginning to buckle, or just evidence that employers had finally sated their demand for new hires? If job gains were to stay strong, would that be a sign that things were overheating, or evidence that labor supply was still expanding?“Through a pre-pandemic lens, the economy looks quite strong, maybe even hot,” said Ernie Tedeschi, a research scholar at Yale Law School who was, until this spring, a White House economic adviser. But given all of the gains to labor supply, “maybe we shouldn’t use a pre-pandemic lens for thinking about the economy right now,” he said.Friday’s report is expected to show that job gains remained rapid in April: Economists are forecasting a 240,000 person jump in payrolls, according to a Bloomberg survey.That would continue the trend over the past year. The economy added 247,000 jobs per month on average from March 2023 to March 2024. To put that in context, the economy had added 167,000 jobs a month in the year through March 2019, the spring before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.The Fed’s policy committee voted this week to keep interest rates at 5.3 percent, where they have been set since July. Mr. Powell signaled that they are likely to stay at that relatively high level longer than previously expected, as officials await evidence that inflation is poised to cool further after months of stalled progress.But while the path ahead for price increases will be the main driver of policy, Mr. Powell said that “as inflation has come down, now to below 3 percent,” employment also “now comes back into focus.”For now, Fed officials have not been overly worried about rapid job gains. Mr. Powell noted on Wednesday that the economy had been able to grow more strongly in 2023 partly because the labor supply had expanded so much, both because of immigration and because more people were participating in the job market.“Remember what we saw last year: very strong growth, a really tight labor market and a historically fast decline in inflation,” Mr. Powell said. “I wouldn’t rule out that something like that can continue.”On the other hand, Mr. Powell hinted that Fed officials were keeping an eye on wage growth. He suggested repeatedly that strong wage increases alone would not be enough to drive the Fed’s decisions.But the Fed chair still signaled that recent wage gains were stronger than the Fed thought would be consistent with low and stable inflation over time. As companies pay more to attract workers, many economists think that they are likely to raise prices to cover climbing labor costs and protect profit margins.Pay gains remain strong by key measures. Data this week showed that a measure of wages and benefits that the Fed watches closely, called the Employment Cost Index, climbed more rapidly than expected at the start of 2024.“We don’t target wage increases, but in the longer run, if you have wage increases running higher than productivity would warrant, there will be inflationary pressures,” Mr. Powell said this week. When it comes to slowing down wage gains to a sustainable pace, “we have a ways to go on that.”Whether job gains and wage gains will remain so rapid is unclear.Bill Kasko, the president of a white-collar employment placement agency in Texas, said that while he continued to see strong demand for workers, he also noticed employers becoming pickier as the outlook for interest rates and the looming presidential election stoked uncertainty. They wanted to see more job candidates, and take longer to make decisions.“There’s still demand, it’s just not moving as quickly,” Mr. Kasko said.If employers start to pull back more concertedly, Mr. Powell made clear this week that a “meaningful” jump in joblessness could prod the central bank to lower rates.The upshot? It seems as if officials would be more alarmed by a marked job market slowdown than by strong continued payroll gains, especially when it is hard to tell whether robust hiring numbers signal that the labor market is hot or simply that it is changing.“There’s an asymmetry in how they view the labor market,” said Michael Feroli, the chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan.Ben Casselman More

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    North Carolina Triad Tries to Reinvent Its Economy

    Scott Kidd didn’t expect a terribly busy job when he became the town manager of Liberty, N.C., a onetime furniture and textile hub whose rhythms more recently centered on a yearly antiques festival.Those quiet times, less than three years ago, soon became a whirlwind. Toyota announced it was building a battery factory on the town’s rural outskirts for electric and hybrid vehicles, and since then Mr. Kidd has reviewed ordinances, met with housing developers and otherwise sought to meet the needs of a seven-million-square-foot facility.The flurry of activity reflects new investments in a region of North Carolina that has lagged behind: the Triad. The average income in Randolph County, which includes Liberty, is $47,000, and some jobs at Toyota will offer an hourly wage comfortably above that. More people moving into the area could breathe life into Liberty’s downtown.But the potential dividends for the area — which includes Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point, in the center of the state — depend on equipping its workers with the skills needed for those new jobs. Mr. Kidd worried that many local workers lacked the education and skills to work at the plant.For those jobs, “they don’t write anything down — they put it in a computer,” Mr. Kidd said. “And if you don’t know how to do that, you kind of get x-ed out.”At the same time, some residents and local leaders who welcome the new industries worry about maintaining the area’s character, lest it become like the rapidly growing — and expensive — sprawls elsewhere in the South.“We don’t want to be Charlotte,” said Marvin Price, executive vice president of economic development at the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, referring to the banking center 100 miles down Interstate 85. “We want to be the best version of Greensboro.”Like many states, North Carolina has drawn on new federal and state incentives to attract more advanced manufacturing and clean technology businesses. And the Triad, built on the tobacco, textile and furniture industries, is trying to pivot toward advanced manufacturing, offering a potential blueprint to other regions whose economic engines sputtered with globalization and the rise of automation.When it opens next year, Toyota’s Liberty factory will make batteries for vehicles built in Kentucky. Ten minutes away in Siler City, Wolfspeed, a semiconductor manufacturer, is building a factory with a $5 billion investment. Toyota has been awarded almost $500 million in incentives and tax breaks from the State of North Carolina, while federal legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the CHIPS Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act have enticed investment.“The Biden administration policies have helped North Carolina and especially the Triad become a clean energy epicenter in this country,” Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said at a recent event in Greensboro.Toyota is building a battery factory for electric and hybrid vehicles on the rural outskirts of Liberty.A former furniture factory is being used as a warehouse in High Point, N.C., which is part of the Triad region.For decades, the Triad has been the state’s manufacturing base. High Point became known as the home furnishings capital of the world, with the city and surrounding areas accounting for 60 percent of the country’s furniture production at their peak. Along with furniture, Greensboro and Winston-Salem specialized in textiles and tobacco. And while the Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill had renowned universities in the University of North Carolina, Duke and North Carolina State, the Triad had Wake Forest University.But like many manufacturing regions, its fortunes started to decline in the 1970s. Jobs in textiles started being moved overseas or automated, furniture contracted with the arrival of cheaper Chinese imports, and tobacco contracted because of a decline in smoking. Mills shut down, sitting vacant for decades, and downtowns languished.At the same time, the economy of the Triangle, which had the country’s largest corporate research park, took off as research and tech companies grew. In 2001, the Research Triangle and the Triad had roughly the same economic output; by 2021, the two had diverged. Both regions gained population, but the Triangle grew faster, buoyed by growing numbers of college-educated workers.Some industries have received a lifeline in recent years: Furniture boomed during the height of the pandemic from increased demand for home furnishings, and manufacturing has been resurging across the country. But hundreds of workers lost their jobs last year with the shuttering of several factories.“This area of the state has found itself in a situation where it has to diversify,” said Jerry Fox, an economics professor at High Point University. “This is an opportunity for people in our area to have better-paying jobs.”Signs of change are evident in downtowns. In High Point, a hosiery mill sat vacant for decades, opening only for biannual furniture showrooms. But in 2021, a group of local investors joined with the city’s Chamber of Commerce and a local foundation that donated more than $40 million to convert the site to a co-working space, Congdon Yards. Today, it houses around 50 employers and 360 employees.The Congdon Yards co-working space in High Point occupies a former hosiery mill.The former mill is now home to dozens of employers and hundreds of employees.The space sat vacant for decades before investors came together to raise funds for the conversion.The former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company factory in Winston-Salem is now part of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.Mike Belleme for The New York TimesSimilar projects have been undertaken in Winston-Salem and Greensboro. In downtown Winston-Salem, old cigarette factories have become the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, a research-focused district that cost more than $500 million. In Greensboro, one of the city’s oldest textile mills has been converted into a mixed-use complex, with amenities like a pizzeria to go along with office space.Still, challenges remain.One is preparing the region’s workers for jobs that require different skills. Thomas Built, a bus manufacturer based in High Point since 1916, has been making electric buses over the past decade. It has nearly 2,000 employees in High Point, making it one of the city’s top employers.Kevin Bangston, the chief executive of Thomas Built, said the company had hired more than 300 workers over the past 15 months. But he has found it difficult to hire for more skilled jobs that handle automated processes in the factory.“Demand is very high for those positions, and supply is very low,” Mr. Bangston said.Key to that transition is the role of work force development programs, which involve partnerships between businesses and community colleges to provide the skills to work in advanced manufacturing.One school offering such training is Guilford Technical Community College, the site of Mr. Cooper’s Greensboro appearance. At the same event, Jill Biden, the first lady, highlighted what she saw as the importance of such programs to enacting President Biden’s economic agenda.The school offers apprenticeships, enabling students to work while earning an associate degree. One program, designed by Toyota, aims to qualify workers for jobs at the company.Guilford Technical Community College’s campus in Greensboro, N.C., where students learn skills they can use in advanced manufacturing jobs.Students at the school learn about electricity, motor controls and the components of car batteries.Devante Cuthbertson joined the apprenticeship program at Guilford Tech last year.The president of Guilford Tech said the arrival of Toyota had increased interest in the school’s programs.Devante Cuthbertson, 28, grew up in Greensboro and was working for a flooring company around 30 minutes away as a machine operator, but he left that job in 2023 to join the apprenticeship program at Guilford Tech. There, he takes classes twice a week and goes to the Toyota battery plant site three times a week for an apprenticeship program, applying classroom learning about electricity, motor controls and the components of car batteries.“I wanted to ensure I had an education,” said Mr. Cuthbertson, who said he intended to apply for a job at Toyota as a maintenance technician when he graduates in 2025.Anthony Clarke, the president of Guilford Tech, said the arrival of Toyota — with the promise of high-paying jobs — had boosted interest in the school’s programs.“Any time employers stand up and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got really good-paying jobs,’ students pay attention to that, and they flock to that,” Dr. Clarke said.Economic development leaders and elected officials have cited the area’s affordability as a draw for companies and workers alike, particularly as housing costs have skyrocketed nationally. According to Zillow, the average home valuation in the Triad’s three main cities is around $250,000, compared with more than $300,000 for the state as a whole and more than $400,000 in the Triangle.The Triad has become a destination for some college-educated workers leaving coastal cities. Along with her husband, who worked for Nike, Melissa Binder left Portland, Ore., in 2019 for Winston-Salem to raise their child. They bought their house for $315,000 in 2019, and Ms. Binder said it offered more space than the house they owned in Portland.After renting in New York’s West Village for several years, Julia and Ryan Hennessee knew they wanted a home to raise a family. In 2018, they chose Winston-Salem to be close to Mr. Hennessee’s family and bought a single-family home for $445,000.The Hennessees said they welcomed the growth offered by the arrival of companies like Toyota. At the same time, they want Winston-Salem to retain the smaller-town charm that drew them to the region — as well as the cost of living — and not become like other Southern cities.“Winston knows how it’s different from a place like Atlanta, and doesn’t have aspirations of becoming that,” Ms. Hennessee said.Julia and Ryan Hennessee moved to Winston-Salem from New York City in 2018.The Triad has become a destination for some college-educated workers leaving coastal cities. But for others in the Triad, particularly in more rural parts like Liberty, the transition could prove more challenging.Brenda Hornsby Heindl, a librarian in Liberty, said the Toyota plant could improve the town’s fortunes. But primary education in the county remains underfunded, she said, and literacy levels are lower than the state average.“While my goal for the future of our community is that anyone could apply as an engineer at Toyota, right now we’ve got adults and kids that couldn’t read an application,” Ms. Hornsby Heindl said. “It’s going to take more than Toyota to have that happen.” More

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    Job Openings and Hiring Are at a 3-Year Ebb

    The red-hot labor market cooled somewhat in March, government data showed on Wednesday.Employers had 8.5 million unfilled job openings on the last day of March, the fewest since early 2021, according to data released by the Labor Department. They also filled the fewest jobs in nearly four years, suggesting that employers’ seemingly insatiable demand for workers might finally be abating.A slowing labor market would be welcome news for policymakers at the Federal Reserve, who are concluding a two-day meeting on Wednesday amid signs that inflation is proving difficult to stamp out. Fed officials have said they see falling job openings as a sign that supply and demand are coming into better balance.For workers, however, that rebalancing could mean a loss of the bargaining power that has brought them strong wage gains in recent years. The number of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs fell to 3.3 million, the lowest level in more than three years and a far cry from the more than four million a month who were leaving their jobs at the peak of the “great resignation” in 2022.“This continued moderation is largely positive for the market and the economy overall, and is mostly sustainable for the time being,” Nick Bunker, economic research director for the Indeed Hiring Lab, wrote in a note on Wednesday. But, he added, “if job openings continue to decline for much longer, hiring of unemployed workers will eventually retreat enough to drive unemployment up.”There is little sign of that so far, however. Despite high-profile job cuts at a few large companies, layoffs remain low overall, and fell in March. And while job openings have fallen, there are still about 1.3 available positions for every unemployed worker. Data released by the Labor Department on Tuesday showed that wage growth picked up in the first three months of the year, suggesting workers retain some leverage.The data released Wednesday came from the Labor Department’s monthly survey of job openings and labor turnover. Economists will get a more timely snapshot of the labor market on Friday, when the government releases its monthly jobs report.Forecasters expect that data to show that employers added about 240,000 jobs in April and that the unemployment rate remained below 4 percent for the 27th consecutive month. More

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    3 Facts That Help Explain a Confusing Economic Moment

    3 Facts That Help Explain a Confusing Economic Moment

    The path to a “soft landing” doesn’t seem as smooth as it did four months ago. But the expectations of a year ago have been surpassed.April 13, 2024The economic news of the past two weeks has been enough to leave even seasoned observers feeling whipsawed. The unemployment rate fell. Inflation rose. The stock market plunged, then rebounded, then dropped again.Take a step back, however, and the picture comes into sharper focus.Compared with the outlook in December, when the economy seemed to be on a glide path to a surprisingly smooth “soft landing,” the recent news has been disappointing. Inflation has proved more stubborn than hoped. Interest rates are likely to stay at their current level, the highest in decades, at least into the summer, if not into next year.Shift the comparison point back just a bit, however, to the beginning of last year, and the story changes. Back then, forecasters were widely predicting a recession, convinced that the Federal Reserve’s efforts to control inflation would inevitably result in job losses, bankruptcies and foreclosures. And yet inflation, even accounting for its recent hiccups, has cooled significantly, while the rest of the economy has so far escaped significant damage.“It seems churlish to complain about where we are right now,” said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project, an economic policy arm of the Brookings Institution. “This has been a really remarkably painless slowdown given what we all worried about.”The monthly gyrations in consumer prices, job growth and other indicators matter intensely to investors, for whom every hundredth of a percentage point in Treasury yields can affect billions of dollars in trades.But for pretty much everyone else, what matters is the somewhat longer run. And from that perspective, the economic outlook has shifted in some subtle but important ways.

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    Change in prices from a year earlier in select categories
    Notes: “Groceries” chart shows price index for food at home. “Furniture” includes bedding.Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York Times

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    The unemployment rate
    Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York Times

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    The federal funds target rate
    Note: The rate since December 2008 is the upper limit of the federal funds target range.Source: The Federal ReserveBy The New York TimesWe are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More

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    U.S. Employers Added 303,000 Jobs in 39th Straight Month of Growth

    The March data increased confidence among economists and investors that robust hiring and rising wages can continue to coexist while inflation eases.Another month, another burst of better-than-expected job gains.Employers added 303,000 jobs in March on a seasonally adjusted basis, the Labor Department reported on Friday, and the unemployment rate fell to 3.8 percent, from 3.9 percent in February. Expectations of a recession among experts, once widespread, are now increasingly rare.It was the 39th straight month of job growth. And employment levels are now more than three million greater than forecast by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office just before the pandemic shock.The resilient data generally increased confidence among economists and market investors that the U.S. economy has reached a healthy equilibrium in which a steady roll of commercial activity, growing employment and rising wages can coexist, despite the high interest rate levels of the last two years.From late 2021 to early 2023, inflation was outstripping wage gains, but that also now appears to have firmly shifted, even as wage increases decelerate from their roaring rates of growth in 2022. Average hourly earnings for workers rose 0.3 percent in March from the previous month and were up 4.1 percent from March 2023.Wage growth continues to slowYear-over-year percentage change in earnings vs. inflation More

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    U.S. Employers Add 275,000 Jobs in Another Strong Month

    Economists are trying to gauge whether forecasts of a slowing labor market were mistaken or just premature. For now, gains are consistent and strong.If the economy is slowing down, nobody told the labor market.Employers added 275,000 jobs in February, the Labor Department reported Friday, in another month that exceeded expectations even as the unemployment rate rose.It was the third straight month of gains above 200,000, and the 38th consecutive month of growth — fresh evidence that four years after going into pandemic shutdowns, America’s jobs engine still has plenty of steam.“We’ve been expecting a slowdown in the labor market, a more material loosening in conditions, but we’re just not seeing that,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief economist at High Frequency Economics.Previously reported figures for December and January were revised downward by a total of 167,000, reflecting the higher degree of statistical volatility in the winter months. That does not disrupt a picture of consistent, robust increases.At the same time, the unemployment rate, based on a survey of households rather than businesses, increased to a two-year high of 3.9 percent. The increase from 3.7 percent in January was driven by people losing or leaving jobs as well as those entering the labor force to look for work.A more expansive measure of slack labor market conditions, which includes people working part time who would rather work full time, has been steadily rising and now stands at 7.3 percent.Wage growth slowed slightly in FebruaryYear-over-year percentage change in earnings vs. inflation More

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    California’s Economy Pinched by Unemployment

    Tech layoffs, fallout from Hollywood strikes and an uptick in rural joblessness challenge a state with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates.For decades, California’s behemoth economy has outpaced those of most nations, holding an outsize role in shaping global trends in tech, entertainment and agriculture.While that reputation remains, the state has a less enviable distinction: one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates.Nationwide, the rate is 3.7 percent, and in January, the country added 353,000 jobs. California’s job growth has been slower than the nationwide average over the last year, and the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high — 5.1 percent in the latest data, a percentage point higher than a year earlier and outpaced only by Nevada’s 5.4 percent.With layoffs in the tech-centered Bay Area, a slow rebound in Southern California from prolonged strikes in the entertainment industry and varying demand for agricultural workers, California is facing economic headwinds in the new year. And residents feel it.The state has historically had higher unemployment than the U.S. average because of a work force that is younger and fast growing, said Sarah Bohn, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. Still, she noted, the labor force shrank in California in the past six months — a troubling trend.“When looking at this shrinking, are there less opportunities and people have just stopped looking for work?” Ms. Bohn asked. “What will this mean for consumers and businesses?”We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More

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    Three Lessons From a Surprisingly Resilient Job Market

    The recovery from the pandemic lockdowns has prompted economists to consider whether their playbook is outdated or just missing a page.The pandemic created an economic crisis unlike any recession on record. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the aftermath, too, has played out in a way that almost no economists expected.When unemployment soared in the first weeks of the pandemic, many feared a repeat of the long, slow rebound from the Great Recession: years of joblessness that left many workers permanently scarred. Instead, the recovery in the labor market has been, by many measures, the strongest on record.In early 2021, some economists foresaw a surge in inflation. Others were skeptical: Similar predictions in recent years — in some cases from the same forecasters — had failed to come true. This time, however, they were right.And when the Federal Reserve began trying to tamp down inflation, there were warnings that the job market was sure to buckle, as it had threatened to do every time policymakers began raising interest rates too rapidly in the decade before the pandemic. Instead, the central bank has raised rates to their highest level in decades, and the job market is holding steady, or perhaps even gaining steam.The final chapter on the recovery has not been written. A “soft landing” is not a done deal. But it is clear that the economy, particularly the job market, has proved far more resilient than most people thought probable.Interviews with dozens of economists — some of whom got the recovery partly right, many of whom got it mostly wrong — provided insights into what they have learned from the past two years, and what they make of the job market right now. They didn’t agree on all the details, but three broad themes emerged.

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    Unemployment usually rises when job openings fall. Not this time.
    Notes: Job openings are shown as a share of employment. Unemployment is shown as a share of the labor force. All data is seasonally adjusted.Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York Times

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    The racial unemployment gap is narrowing
    Note: Data is seasonally adjusted.Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York Times

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    Job growth has far surpassed prepandemic expectations
    Notes: Change since fourth quarter 2014. Projection based on 2015 Congressional Budget Office forecast.Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Congressional Budget OfficeBy The New York TimesWe are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More