What higher interest rates could mean for jobs
By Lydia DePillis
The past year has been a busy one for nearly every industry, as a reopening economy has ignited a war for talent. Unless, of course, your business is finding jobs for laid-off workers.
“For outplacement, it’s been a very slow time,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president of the career transition firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. But lately, he has been getting more inquiries, in a sign that the market might be about to take a turn. “We’re starting to gear up for what we anticipate to be a normalization where companies start to let people go again.”
Spurred by red-hot inflation fueled partly by competition for scarce labor, the Federal Reserve has begun raising interest rates in an effort to cool off the economy before it boils over. By design, that means slower job growth — ideally in the form of a steady moderation in the number of openings, but possibly in pink slips, too.
It is not yet clear what that adjustment will look like. But one thing does seem certain: Job losses would have to mount considerably before workers would have a hard time finding new positions, given the backlogged demand.
So far, the labor market has revealed some clues about what might lie ahead.
Challenger’s data, for example, shows that announced job cuts rose 6% in April over the same month in 2021. While still far below levels seen earlier in 2020, it was the first month in 2022 to have a year-over-year increase, and followed a 40% jump in March over the previous month. Some of those layoffs were idiosyncratic: More than half the layoffs in health care in the first third of this year resulted from workers’ refusal to obey vaccine mandates, with some of the rest stemming from the end of COVID-19-related programs.
But other layoffs seem directly related to the Fed’s new direction. Nearly 8,700 people in the financial services sector lost jobs from January through April, Challenger found, mostly in mortgage banking. Rising rates for home loans have torpedoed demand for refinances, while prospective buyers are increasingly being priced out.
Theoretically, a Fed-driven housing slowdown might in turn tamp down demand for construction workers. But builders bounced back strongly after a dip in 2020 and have only accelerated since. The National Association of Home Builders estimates that the industry needs to hire 740,000 people every year just to keep up with retirements and growth. Even if housing starts fell off, homeowners feeling flush as their equity has risen would snap up available workers to add third bedrooms or new cabinets.
“A big national builder that’s concentrated in a high-cost market, and all they do is single-family exurban construction, yeah, they may have layoffs,” said the association’s chief economist, Robert Dietz. “But then remodelers would come along and say, ‘Oh, here’s some trained electricians and framers, let’s go get them.’”
Another sector that is typically sensitive to the cost of credit is commercial construction, which sustained deep losses as office development came to a screeching halt during the pandemic. Nevertheless, cash-rich clients have plowed ahead with industrial projects like power plants and factories, while federal investment in infrastructure has only begun to make its way into procurement processes.
“I think that lending rates might be less important right now,” said Kenneth D. Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America. “An increase in either credit market or bank rates isn’t sufficient to choke off demand for many types of projects.”
The tech sector, which feeds on venture capital that is more abundant in low-interest-rate environments, has drooped in recent months. Under pressure to burn less cash, some companies are looking to offshore jobs that before the pandemic they thought needed to be done on site, or at least in the country.
In the broader economy, however, any near-term layoffs might occur because of forces outside the Fed’s control: namely, the exhaustion of federal pandemic-relief spending, and a natural waning in demand for goods after a two-year national shopping spree. That could hit manufacturing and retail, as consumers contemplate their overfilled closets. Spending on long-lasting items has fallen for a couple months in a row, even before adjusting for inflation.
In general, if the Fed’s path of tightening does prompt firms to downsize, that is likely to be bad news for Black, Hispanic and female workers with less education. Research shows that while a hot labor market tends to bring in people who have less experience or barriers to employment, those workers are also the first to be let go as conditions worsen — across all industries, not just in sectors that might be hit harder by a recession.
So far, initial claims for unemployment benefits remain near pre-pandemic lows, at around 200,000 per week.
But some economists worry that they might not be as good a signal of impending trouble in the labor market as they used to be.
The share of workers who claim unemployment, known as the “recipiency rate,” has declined in recent decades to only about a third of those who lose jobs. These days, any laid-off workers might be finding new jobs quickly enough that they do not bother to file. And the pandemic may have further scrambled people’s understanding of whether they are eligible.
“One possibility is that people are going to think that because they haven’t worked long enough, because they switched employers or stopped working for a period of time, that this would make them ineligible, and they’re going to assume that they can’t get it again,” said Kathryn Anne Edwards, a labor economist at the RAND Corp. (The other possibility is that the temporary supplements to unemployment insurance during the pandemic might have introduced more people to the system, leading to more claims rather than fewer.)
One good sign: Employers may have learned from previous recessions that letting people go at the first sign of a downturn can wind up having a cost when they need to staff up again. For that reason, managers are trying harder to redeploy people within the company instead.
John Morgan, president of the outplacement firm LHH, said that while he was getting more inquiries from companies preparing to downsize, he did not expect as large a surge as in past cycles.
“Even if they’re driving down on profits, a lot of our customers are trying to avoid the ‘fire and rehire’ playbook of the past,” Morgan said. “How can they invest in upskilling and reskilling and move talent they have inside the organization? Because it’s just really hard to acquire new talent right now, and incredibly expensive.”