The Big Caveat With The Labor Department's Jobs Report

Jun 1, 2018
Originally published on June 1, 2018 4:55 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At 7:21 this morning, President Trump tweeted that he was, quote, "looking forward to seeing the employment numbers" that would be coming out a little while later. And, sure enough, he had reason to. The Labor Department released a jobless rate of 3.8 percent. That is the lowest it has been since the year 2000. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben joins us to talk about the numbers and about that tweet, which is generating some controversy.

Hey, Danielle.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So let's dive right in with the controversy because why not? This tweet - a lot of people are saying it was really inappropriate for the president to tweet that he was looking forward to seeing the numbers. Why? Why is that sparking outrage?

KURTZLEBEN: Because the Labor Department is just very strict about the jobs numbers. They come out at a specific time. That's 8:30 Eastern. Government employees who have access to this data, they aren't even supposed to comment on it until an hour after the jobs data is out. So it's pretty remarkable that the president may have done so before. And the president does get briefed on the numbers the night before the jobs report is released. So when he did tweet this morning - after he had the numbers where everyone else didn't - it looked like he might be spiking the football. And, by the way, one more thing. Trump has, on multiple occasions - you know, on the campaign trail before he became president, he had called the jobs numbers fake. So when he celebrates the jobs report now, it's kind of an about-face.

KELLY: To this question of spiking the football, is there any evidence that the president did move markets or did tip somebody off that he tweeted early?

KURTZLEBEN: The markets certainly moved. They were up on the opening bell this morning. But then again, you would expect that on a strong jobs report. And this was a strong report, so there's no way of really knowing.

KELLY: Whether the president's tweet had anything to do with that or not?

KURTZLEBEN: Exactly.

KELLY: OK, setting aside the question of the president's controversial tweet, this headline number, that we're saying that more than 223,000 jobs were added last month, that seems like really good news. That's a big number. What's your read on it?

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, it is a really good number. I mean, all around, a lot of economists, analysts are saying this is a strong jobs report. But there is a big caveat here I do want to point out. These monthly jobs numbers come with a big margin of error. That margin of error is plus or minus 115,000 jobs.

KELLY: OK, so it sounds like we do know that there were a lot of jobs added. It was a big number. But that margin of error is also really big. So how meaningful or meaningless is that top line, 223,000 jobs were added?

KURTZLEBEN: It's still meaningful, but when you're thinking about it, yes, you should keep that margin of error in mind. I mean, at the very least, last month, job growth was modest. At the very most, it was gangbusters. But either way, it looks like it was pretty OK.

KELLY: And for people listening who are you, you know, thinking about trying to get a job, I mean, overall picture for the job market, also pretty good?

KURTZLEBEN: It looks pretty good, yeah. I mean, this number tells us there is a pretty solid job market out there. I mean, in some areas, there's even a labor shortage. But here's one little bit of cold water to throw on this - wages are growing at an annual rate of 2.7 percent. And that's OK, but considering how much job growth we've had, how low unemployment is, it's really not that high, and it does have a lot of economists wondering, why aren't wages picking up? At some point, we should see that, but we're not seeing it in a big way yet.

KELLY: That is NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reporting today from New York. Danielle, good to speak to you.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.