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U.S. September Nonfarm Payrolls Grew Steadily; Jobless Rate Hits Half-Century Low

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10/04/2019 | 08:46am EDT

By Sarah Chaney and David Harrison

U.S. employers added jobs at a steady pace last month, and the unemployment rate hit a 50-year low, signalling the labor market continues to provide opportunities for Americans in search of work despite a broader economic slowdown.

The U.S. economy added 136,000 jobs in September, the Labor Department reported Friday. The jobless rate dropped to 3.5% in September from 3.7% in August, marking the lowest jobless rate since December 1969 when it also logged in at 3.5%.

Meanwhile, average hourly earnings climbed 2.9% from September 2018, a slowdown from previous months but still higher than inflation.

Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal forecast an unemployment rate of 3.7% in September and job growth of 145,000. Payrolls for August and July were revised up by a combined 45,000.

Weakening global growth has prompted policy makers around the world to cut their key interest rates this year, with both the U.S. Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank easing policy in September.

Steady job growth and historically low unemployment helps buffer the U.S. economy against negative spillovers from weakness in manufacturing at home and abroad.

Earlier this week the Institute for Supply Management reported its closely watched gauge of U.S. manufacturing activity contracted for the second consecutive month in September to the lowest level since 2009. The report-coming after data pointing to deepening declines in factory activity in Europe and Asia-triggered fresh concerns about growth prospects.

The U.S. services sector, which accounts for a much larger portion of the economy than manufacturing, was still expanding in September, albeit at the slowest pace in three years, separate ISM figures said.

Americans in search of work still face a bounty of job openings. The number of job postings exceeded the number of unemployed workers by more than 1 million in July.

Ivetta Frost, age 25, of the Houston, Texas area, is one person seeing new job opportunities. Though she wished she had finished high school, she feels she is making steps toward her career dream of becoming an entrepreneur.

Ms. Frost completed job training through Goodwill, which helped her land work earlier this year at a construction company, where she helps install carpet on hospital floors, among other tasks. Her hourly wage about doubled to $14 an hour from when she worked at a local staffing agency.

"Everything I didn't accomplish when I was young, I'm starting to do it now so I can make sure my future is right where I want it to be," Ms. Frost said.

The share of Americans working or searching for work last month held steady at 63.2%.

A broader measure of unemployment and underemployment-which includes those too discouraged to look for work, plus Americans stuck in part-time jobs but who want to work full-time-fell to 6.9% in September from 7.2% in August.

Through September, employers have added an average 161,000 per month this year, down from average growth of 190,000 jobs a month in the eight years since employment started picking up after the last recession.

Last month, manufacturing employment declined by 2,000. Other industries, including health care and transportation, added jobs at a robust clip.

Uncertainty over trade tensions has caused some employers to take a cautious approach to hiring.

Tiffany Zarfas Williams, owner of the Luggage Shop of Lubbock in Texas, said the company has held off on adding any new employees over the past year, given tariff-induced price increases are pinching business.

The luggage store's $400 suitcase, previously a top-selling item, was hit with tariffs totaling 25% in recent months. Sales of the product declined, part of a broader slowdown in sales this year.

"As a small business owner, tariffs hurt," Ms. Williams said, noting the luggage shop would take the risk of adding a couple of part-time employees for the holiday season.

"We want to be able to take care of the customers who do come in," Ms. Williams said.

Write to Sarah Chaney at sarah.chaney@wsj.com and David Harrison at david.harrison@wsj.com

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