Job gains have averaged only 154,000 the past three months, down from 201,000 in the preceding three months. Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Hiring was surprisingly weak in January for the second straight month, likely renewing concern that the U.S. economy might be slowing after a strong finish last year.
Employers added 113,000 jobs, the government said Friday, far less than the average monthly gain of 194,000 last year. This follows December's tepid increase of just 75,000. Job gains have averaged only 154,000 the past three months, down from 201,000 in the preceding three months.
"This is a weak jobs report, and this is two months in a row we've had really tepid jobs growth in the United States," said former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris. "It's an indication that for working families, the economy is not recovering fast enough and, sadly, the economy may be even slowing down."
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The report also showed that slightly more Americans began looking for work in January. The labor force participation rate — which measures how many adults are working or actively looking for work — held steady, going up slightly to 63 percent, from 62.8 percent in December. As a result, the unemployment rate dropped to 6.6 percent from 6.7 percent. That's the lowest rate since October 2008.
However, Kevin Kerr, CEO of the trading firm Kerr Trading International, issued a word of caution, saying the jobs report does not necessarily tell the whole story of the U.S. economy.
"These reports, when they come out, they really don't factor in a lot of things — how many people have been out of work or stopped looking altogether," Kerr told Al Jazeera's Del Walters on Friday. "And so, oftentimes, we look at these numbers with kind of a blind eye and wonder if they’re accurate or not."
Retailers cut 12,900 jobs, the most in 18 months, and government shed 29,000 jobs, mostly in education and the Postal Service.
Average hourly earnings rose 5 cents to $24.21, the report said. Average hourly pay has increased 1.9 percent in the past year, slightly ahead of the 1.5 percent inflation rate.
Sluggish job growth for a second straight month may reflect what investors and economists have begun to fear: that the U.S. job market is weakening again.
The second straight month of weak hiring — marked by declines in retail, utilities, government, and education and health employment — could also be a problem for the Federal Reserve, which is tapering its monthly bond-purchasing stimulus program.
The unemployment rate is now nearing the 6.5 percent level that Fed officials have said would trigger discussions over when to raise benchmark interest rates from near zero. But policymakers have made it clear that rates will not rise anytime soon even if the unemployment threshold is breached.
"There's a lot of uncertainty for investors right now, and I think there's more downside for the market because of that uncertainty," Kerr told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, the White House responded to the jobs report, saying that "while the overall unemployment rate continues to fall, it still remains unacceptably high, reflecting more than 3.6 million long-term unemployed."
House Speaker John Boehner, meanwhile, took a shot at President Barack Obama and Democrats, saying, "It's time for the president and his party's leaders to listen to the American people and work with Republicans to help grow our economy and expand opportunity for all Americans."
Meanwhile, Friday's report also showed that some higher-paying industries added jobs in January. Factories created 21,000 new positions. Professional and technical services, which includes architects and engineers, added 20,000.
But health-care employment was mostly unchanged for a second straight month, after adding 17,000 jobs a month last year.
"Health care has stopped growing," economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research told Al Jazeera, citing a "more concerted effort to rein in costs."
But Baker said that looking ahead, he is "inclined to think we will see some growth in health care," which would lead to a "better overall picture" when the February jobs report is released next month.
If that were to happen, Baker foresees a new jobs number of between 150,000 and 160,000 for February.
"I don't think the economy is really this weak," Baker said of the January eport.
Philip J. Victor contributed to this report, with Al Jazeera and wire services