U.S. jobless rate drops to 18-year low of 3.8%

U.S. job growth accelerated in May and the unemployment rate dropped to an 18-year low of 3.8 per cent, pointing to rapidly tightening labour market conditions, which could stir concerns about inflation.

American economy added 223,000 jobs last month

The U.S. jobless rate has hit its lowest level since Bill Clinton was president. (David Donnelly/CBC)

U.S. job growth accelerated in May and the unemployment rate dropped to an 18-year low of 3.8 per cent, pointing to rapidly tightening labour market conditions, which could stir concerns about inflation.

The closely watched employment report released by the Labour Department on Friday also showed wages rising solidly, cementing expectations that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates this month.

The bullish report also raises the possibility that the economy could overheat.

Overall, the U.S. economy looks strong," said Paul Ashworth, chief economist at Capital Economics in Toronto. "In that environment, we still expect the Fed to hike interest rates an additional three times this year." Nonfarm payrolls increased by 223,000 jobs last month as warm weather boosted hiring at construction sites.

There were also big gains in retail and leisure and hospitality payrolls. The economy created 15,000 more jobs than previously reported in March and April. Last month's one-tenth of a percentage point drop in the unemployment rate pushed it to a level last seen in April 2000.

The jobless rate is now at a level that the Fed forecast it would be at by the end of this year. Average hourly earnings rose eight cents, or 0.3 per cent last month after edging up 0.1 per cent in April. That lifted the annual increase in average hourly earnings to 2.7 per cent from 2.6 per cent in April.

The strong employment report added to a string of upbeat economic data, including consumer spending and industrial production, that have suggested economic growth was regaining speed early in the second quarter after slowing at the beginning of the year.

The strength comes even as the stimulus from a $1.5 trillion income tax cut package and increased government spending is yet to filter through the economy. Renewed fears of a trade war after the Trump administration imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada, Mexico and the European Union, however, cast a dark cloud over the economic outlook. Inflation is running just below the Fed's 2.0 per cent target.

The U.S. central bank increased borrowing costs in March and forecast at least two more rate hikes for this year. After the employment report, traders increased bets that the Fed would raise interest rates four times this year. U.S. Treasury yields rose to session highs and the dollar firmed slightly versus a basket of currencies. U.S. stock index futures were trading higher.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast nonfarm payrolls increasing by 188,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate steady at 3.9 per cent.

Monthly job gains have averaged about 179,000 over the last three months, more than the roughly 120,000 needed to keep up with growth in the working-age population. Though the labour market is viewed as being close to or at full employment, there is still some slack remaining.

The labour force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, fell to 62.7 per cent last month from 62.8 per cent in April. It has declined for three straight months. Still, the labour market is getting tighter.

A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, fell to 7.6 per cent last month, the lowest since May 2001, from 7.8 per cent in April.

With job growth expected to slow as employers struggle to find qualified workers, economists expected wage growth will pick up significantly.

The Fed's latest Beige Book report of anecdotal information on business activity collected from contacts nationwide showed labour market conditions remained tight across the country in late April and early May. The Fed said contacts continued to report difficulty filling positions across skill levels.

There were notable shortages of truck drivers, sales personnel, carpenters, electricians, painters, and information technology professionals, the central bank said in its report published on Wednesday. Job gains in May were across all sectors. Construction payrolls increased by 25,000 after rising by 21,000 jobs in April.

Construction employment fell in March for the first time in eight months. Manufacturers added another 18,000 jobs last month on top of the 25,000 created in April. Government payrolls increased by 5,000, reversing April's 3,000 drop. Retailers boosted employment by 31,100 jobs last month.

Employment in the leisure and hospitality sector increased by 21,000 jobs.