The Labor Department released its hiring and unemployment figures for October on Friday morning, providing the latest snapshot of the American economy.
■ 250,000 jobs were added last month. Wall Street analysts had expected an increase of about 195,000.
■ The unemployment rate was 3.7 percent. The figure for September was also 3.7 percent, the lowest since 1969.
■ Average earnings rose by 0.2 percent and are up 3.1 percent over the past year.
■ The number of people working or looking for a job increased by 711,000, nudging the labor force participation rate up to 62.9 percent, from 62.7 percent a month earlier.
Friday’s report, the last official economic reading before Americans vote on Tuesday, offered another reminder of the labor market’s persistent strength.
The economy has historically not played an outsize role in midterm elections, and this political season, border control, health care and Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court have gobbled up airtime. Still, “jobs and the economy” was cited more frequently than other issues as the most important in a survey conducted in early October for The New York Times by the online research platform SurveyMonkey.
“The labor market is definitely healthy and we’re bringing more people into the labor force,” said Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West.
October marked the 97th consecutive month of job growth, extending an already record-making streak. Average monthly payroll increases have floated around the 200,000 mark. Last week, the government estimated that the economy grew at a hearty annualized rate of 3.5 percent in the third quarter. Confidence remains high among consumers and business leaders.
The year-over-year change jumped partly because there was an unusual drop in wages in October last year after Hurricane Harvey.
An Eye on Wages
With the jobless rate at record lows, attention has been increasingly focused on wage growth. Although the unemployment rate has consistently surfed below the levels reached in 2000, at the height of that expansion, wages have been growing at significantly slower rates.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Mr. Anderson said, citing increases. But after inflation is taken into account, real wages are creeping along at a very slow pace.
“They’re still trailing real consumer spending,” he said. “That’s a problem as we move into the fourth quarter; the pickup in wage growth isn’t really enough to keep up with the spending pace we’ve been at over the past six months.”
Consumer spending, which accounts for roughly 70 percent of economic output, was especially vigorous in the second and third quarters.
Ted Franke, a sales representative for a beer, wine and liquor distributor in Louisville, Ky., said employees at his company got twice their usual raise this year and received their maximum bonuses. His customers, mostly small grocery and convenience stores, are ordering more alcohol, which Mr. Franke said he took as a sign of a strong local economy. And while he isn’t looking for a new job, he said it helped his confidence to know that he could find another position.
Still, Mr. Franke, 37, isn’t rushing to spend the extra money in his paycheck. Instead, he is paying down debt and contributing more to his 401(k) plan.
“I’m not really going out and buying more stuff,” he said.
According to a report last week from the research arm of the payroll processing firm ADP, American workers are earning nearly $1 more per hour on average than they were a year ago. Workers in the professional and business services benefited from some of the fastest growth, the report said.
William H. Stoller, chairman and chief executive officer of Express Employment Professionals, which is based in Oklahoma City, said pay in light industrial and administrative jobs, for example, had climbed to $14.50 to $15.50 an hour, from roughly $13.60 a year ago.
Most job applicants Express encounters are not coming off the sidelines, he said, but rather are people looking for higher pay and more opportunities to advance.
Coming Off the Bench
Since the recession ended, analysts have struggled to understand how many more potential workers are out there. Before the financial crisis, more than 66 percent of the population 16 or older was working or looking for a job. In recent years, that rate has rarely risen above 63 percent.
Many of those workers will rejoin the labor force — some have reached retirement age, others have seen their skills lose value, and a number are too disabled to work. Economists have had a spirited debate over how many more people could be lured back to the labor market. The relatively languid pace of wage growth could be evidence that there are still people on the sidelines who would be willing to take jobs if it seemed worth while.
So far this year, the labor force has been growing by roughly 70,000 people a month — way below the average hiring figures. Help is not coming from abroad: The number of immigrant visas issued by the government has declined for two years in a row.
Employers say they are on the hunt for workers. “I speak to probably a thousand businesspeople a month,” said Rick Lazio, a former Republican congressman who is now a senior vice president at Alliantgroup, a tax-credit consulting firm. Midsize manufacturers are turning down lots of business, he said, “because they can’t find the people and they can’t get the equipment fast enough.”
Analysts cautioned that the hurricanes that hit the Southeast this fall could be distorting underlying trends in the labor market. Hurricane Florence contributed to the weakness of September’s payroll growth. That storm affected 1.7 million people, and employment fell by about 39,000 in North Carolina and South Carolina. In October came Hurricane Michael, which made landfall in Florida. In that state and Georgia, jobless claims rose by 10,000. October’s figures will be revised up or down twice more, and September’s once more.
Worries about fierce competition for holiday hiring have prompted employers to be more aggressive, putting offers out earlier than usual and raising wages, recruiters said. The global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which tracks hiring announcements, has reported that companies are looking to add 700,000 seasonal workers, the largest number since 2014.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics regularly adjusts the jobs figures to account for seasonal changes, but here again, unusual shifts may not be fully captured and could artificially inflate (or deflate) the monthly totals.
United Parcel Service has said it plans to hire 100,000 people for the holidays. Several applicants for packing or delivery positions who showed up at the company’s hulking customer center in Manhattan during a recent nationwide hiring drive said they hoped temporary stints would turn into permanent jobs. A company spokesman said that seasonal positions paid $10.35 to $30 an hour, depending on the location.
“I’m just praying,” said Chanique Cox, 42, knocking her knuckles on a wooden counter and clicking her blue nails. “I’m only finding temporary jobs. I would love it if I got a permanent job.”
Ms. Cox, who did not finish high school, said that nearly all the jobs she had pursued required an online application, and that she never heard back about why she was not selected.
Job opportunities have finally begun rippling out to groups that were largely bypassed during much of the recovery: African-Americans, Hispanics, less-educated workers and people with disabilities have all seen their unemployment rates drop in recent months.
Kenyah Brickhouse, a 20-year-old with a high school diploma who lives in Harlem and filled out an application at U.P.S., said low-wage jobs were plentiful. “But it’s hard to find one with a suitable wage that will enable you to live in New York,” he said.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-of-center organization that has been tracking the growth of blue-collar jobs, noted that the manufacturing, construction, and mining and logging sectors have added jobs every month through September for more than a year.
These industries long served to prop up the middle class with higher wages and benefits, particularly among workers without a college education. Yet even with the recent growth, those three sectors account for less than 14 percent of nonagricultural employment.
Low wages in many sectors have contributed to financial instability. More than a quarter of Americans don’t earn enough to cover basic expenses, while more than a third are unable to pay all their bills on time, according to a report released Thursday by the Center for Financial Services Innovation, a nonprofit funded by the Ford Foundation and several banks. That shortfall has contributed to mounting credit card debt and loan defaults.
Amazon, the online retail giant, said recently that employees’ desire for a more stable income contributed to its decision to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, while trimming stock awards and bonuses for hourly workers. The increase went into effect on Thursday.
Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said in a research note this week that “the underlying trends are clear; the rates of increase of both wages and salaries are grinding higher, but they aren’t exploding.”
“The underlying fundamental drivers of the economy — and the labor market is an important one — are strong,” said Scott Clemons, chief investment strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman. “What’s so impressive to me is there have been more jobs than workers every month since March of this year.” Openings exceeded 7.1 million, according to the government’s most recent count.