The unemployment rate continued its decline in August across the major metropolitan economies in Texas and across the State and U.S. as the recovery from the economic effects of the pandemic continue (see Chart 1). In San Antonio, the unemployment rate declined to 4.8%, This is 1.8 percentage points above the pre-pandemic level, so while the economy is certainly recovering, there is still a ways to go. San Antonio has the third lowest unemployment rate compared to the other major metropolitan economies in Texas with Austin having the lowest at 3.8%. The unemployment rate in Texas stood at 5.9%, a bit higher than the unemployment rate for the U.S. at 5.2%.
However, the total level of employment in San Antonio declined in July and August, as shown in Chart 2. This indicates to me that at least part of the decline in the unemployment rate in San Antonio may be due to people dropping out of the labor force and therefore, no longer being counted in the unemployment rate. This is also occurring in some of the other major metropolitan economies across the state.
While there have been monthly declines in total employment the past couple of months, the year-over-year growth rates in employment continued to be strong in August with growth in San Antonio coming in at 3.94% (see Chart 3), a good bit above the average historical growth rate in the region of about 2.3%. However, these growth rates continue to decline across most regions in the state, as well as across the entire state of Texas and the U.S. This is likely due to a regression to the mean as the recovery continues and some pull back in consumer spending due to the Delta variant. Another possible factor is the lag in business travel due to the pandemic. This especially affects those local economies with large leisure and hospitality industries like San Antonio because the convention activity is not filling in for the decline in leisure travel as the new school year began.
If we can keep making strides against the pandemic, growth should continue into the near future. This does not mean the year-over-year growth rates will increase, as they will likely tend to move more toward their long-term average rates in the respective areas as the economy gets closer to full employment. The sustained growth will also continue to push the unemployment rates down, especially as the structural unemployment is reduced.
Employment in the San Antonio economy actually declined in July compared to June, as shown in the following table. Compared to the employment level in Feb. 2020, the month before the pandemic hit, employment in San Antonio was still down 25,500 jobs as of June and then in July decreased another 900 jobs to now being off by 26,400 jobs. The employment situation worsened in August as total employment was down 29,200 jobs compared to February 2020. These trends are probably reflecting many novel factors at play in the labor market, not only in San Antonio but across the U.S. and the world.
The unemployment rate in San Antonio has declined from 5.5% in June to 5.1% in July, and now it is sits at 4.8% in August. If the unemployment rate is going down while employment levels are also going down, this seems to me to indicate that the decline in the unemployment rate is due to people dropping out of the labor force instead of finding jobs. This may be due, in part, to the reduction/expiration of unemployment benefits, but it does not seem to indicate that the removal of those benefits had the large impacts on employment that some believed would be the case. Other factors seem to be driving workers’ decisions. Dr. David Autor puts forth an interesting explanation of what may be happening in his New York Times opinion piece (Autor, 2021). Regarding the effects of unemployment benefits, he refers to research showing that states which dropped the federal unemployment benefits this summer have seen very small declines in their unemployment rates. The Financial Times also recently published research on this same phenomenon (Smith and Zhang, 2021). Furthermore, Autor points out that Europe and Britain did not expand their unemployment benefits in a substantial way, and yet, they are also experiencing a labor shortage, too (Autor, 2021).
Having to put your son or daughter in child care has also been put forth as a possible explanation for the labor shortage, but as Autor notes, “women with children have since returned to work at almost the same rate as women without children, meaning access to child care isn’t the main culprit” (Autor, 2021).
He argues that the main reason for the labor shortage is “people’s valuation of their own time has changed.” In other words, many potential workers have decided that it is no longer worth working in a low wage job where they are also likely to be without benefits. As shown in the table above, those industries where wages are lowest are also those where there is high person-to-person interaction and thus, where workers are at increased risk of exposure to COVID. Instead, some are choosing to spend more time with their family and pursue other leisure activities that enhance their standard of living even if it reduces their incomes and consumption (Autor, 2021).
In addition to the explanation put forth by Autor, other factors may also explain what is happening in the labor market in San Antonio. It is clear in the table above that the leisure and hospitality industry and the education and health industry account for most of these job losses. As of June, leisure and hospitality accounted for 17,900 of the decline in jobs, and 8,600 of the jobs lost were in education and health. The employment situation improved in the leisure and hospitality industry in July where the reduction in employment compared to Feb. 2020 declined to 15,800, but the employment level worsened in August to 18,000 jobs. I think this may be due to the rather robust summer vacation season coming to an end followed by convention activity that is still depressed due to the pandemic. The situation got a bit worse in the education and health industry with employment being down 12,100 in July over this same time period but improved in August as the decline reduced to 10,200 jobs. The leisure and hospitality industry and education and health comprise a large part of the San Antonio economy. Besides the shift from leisure visitors to conventions as summer has ended that is possibly affecting employment in the leisure and hospitality industry, there is also much anecdotal evidence of workers in the leisure and hospitality and education and health industries leaving their jobs to seek employment in other industries for many of the reasons already stated. I suspect other metropolitan areas where these industries are a big component of the local economy are seeing similar effects.
It is also worth noting that in the industry that has shown the largest growth since Feb. 2020 by a wide margin, professional and business services, the growth declined from being up 9,900 jobs in June to only being up 6,300 jobs in July. Looking at the data on this industry in more detail, most of the decline occurred in the administration and waste services industry, for which I do not have an explanation. Employment levels did improve a bit in August with total employment in this industry being 7,100 jobs above the February 2020 level.
It is also important to keep in mind the wage levels of the workers most impacted by the economic effects of the pandemic. The average wage is presented in the table above and is calculated using data from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages for Bexar County. The average wage across all industries is $56,126 as of 2019, and of the four industries with below average wages, three of those industries are also the three most impacted by the pandemic in terms of declines in employment. This is no surprise as we have known that the economic effects of the pandemic have disproportionately fallen on those at the lower end of the income scale. As mentioned earlier, these are also likely to be the people most impacted by the loss of unemployment benefits, and given the other aforementioned factors at play in this labor market, it may also be deleterious to the overall economic recovery as their spending and engagement in the economy possibly declines.
Even more so, the adjustments happening on the supply-side of the labor market as discussed above indicate that the persistent labor shortage is due to structural changes, as workers reassess the value of their time and/or seek to transition to employment in different industries or different jobs in the same industry. The upshot is that the recovery back to pre-pandemic employment levels will take longer than if these effects were not occurring. This means that facilitating these adjustments is of utmost importance to helping those seeking to transition to new careers, but it is also vital to reducing the time it takes the economy to fully recover.