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After September's let down, October's job growth rate accelerates

NOEL KING, HOST:

Hiring picked up strongly last month. The Labor Department said this morning that U.S. employers added 531,000 jobs in October. Now, that's a big increase over September's number, and it's better than forecasters had expected. The unemployment rate also fell to 4.6%. NPR's Scott Horsley is following this one. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So the country, as you know, went into a slump around Labor Day. Does this mean we're out?

HORSLEY: We're getting out. October's numbers were still not as strong as the million-plus jobs that the U.S. added back in July, but they're certainly moving in the right direction. And the August and September jobs numbers were also revised upwards. A lot of this, Noel, has to do with the improvements in the health outlook. Coronavirus infections peaked in early September, and they fell more than 40% through mid-October, when this jobs survey was taken. That late summer surge in COVID cases had really put a damper on the economy, and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said earlier this week it's going to take some time to bounce back from that.

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JEROME POWELL: We have to be humble about what we know about this economy, which is still very COVID affected, by the way. You know, a lot of what we're seeing in the last 90 days is because of delta. We were on a path to a very different place. Delta put us on a different path.

HORSLEY: As those delta cases have declined, people are getting more comfortable eating out and traveling. Bars and restaurants, which have been a good barometer for good and bad during the pandemic, added 119,000 jobs last month. We also saw a lot of hiring in factories and warehouses.

KING: And we keep doing stories about employers who are desperate to hire people. What do these numbers tell us about how that is going?

HORSLEY: Well, there's still a challenge finding enough people to work. The labor force participation rate was flat in October. Almost 3 million people who left the job market during the pandemic have yet to come back. And that means employers are having to compete for the scarce workers who are available. They're having to pay more, especially in typically low-wage jobs like restaurants. Overall, wages in September were up 4.2% from a year ago. And Powell says even with those increased wages, you're not seeing a ton of people jumping back into the job market.

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POWELL: Right now people are staying out of the labor market because of caretaking, because of fear of COVID. We thought THAT schools reopening and elapsing unemployment benefits would produce some sort of additional labor supply. That doesn't seem to have been the case.

HORSLEY: You know, supply-chain bottlenecks also may be keeping a lid on on job growth, but there was some good news here. Companies that make cars and car parts added nearly 28,000 workers last month, so that's a good sign.

KING: If we want to talk about economic recovery overall from the pandemic, how important is the pace of job growth, really?

HORSLEY: It's important. You know, the U.S. still needs to add 4 million jobs to get back to where it was before the pandemic. And the faster employers can add jobs, the faster the country can return to something like full employment. There is a real question, though, about whether the pandemic has made lasting changes in what full employment looks like. You know, when Karen Schenk's bartending job dried up in Tucson, Ariz., last year, she moved in with her sister in California to save money. And she found a part-time gig as a delivery worker. Now she's been offered her old job back again, but she's not sure she wants to go back behind the bar.

KAREN SCHENK: It's so nice to not be yelled at by somebody just because I wasn't quick on the draw with a Budweiser.

HORSLEY: And the choices that workers like Schenck make about when and where and even whether to go back to work also affect the path of the recovery.

KING: Choices. NPR's Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.