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U.S. business hiring hits 7-year low, survey finds

Job fair
Managers wait for job applicants at a job fair in Hollywood, Fla., in June. Unemployment is at a 50-year low, but fewer employers are raising pay, a survey found.
(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)

A measure of hiring by U.S. companies has fallen to a seven-year low and fewer employers are raising pay, a business survey found.

Just one-fifth of the economists surveyed by the National Assn. for Business Economics said their companies have added to their workforces in the past three months. That is down from one-third in July. Job totals were unchanged at 69% of companies, up from 57% in July. A broad measure of job gains in the survey fell to its lowest level since October 2012.

The hiring slowdown comes as more businesses report slower growth of sales and profits. Business economists also expect the U.S. economy’s growth to slow in the coming year, partly because tariffs have raised prices and cut into sales for many firms.

“The U.S. economy appears to be slowing, and respondents expect still slower growth over the next 12 months,” said NABE President Constance Hunter, who is chief economist at the accounting firm KPMG.

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Hiring may also be slowing because the unemployment rate is at a 50-year low of 3.5%, and many companies say they’re struggling to find enough workers. The survey found that 43% of companies reported shortages of skilled workers, though that figure has declined for three consecutive surveys. Government data show that companies are posting fewer available jobs, suggesting that demand for labor is weakening, not just supply.

Perhaps because of concerns over a weakening economy, businesses are less likely to offer higher pay, despite the low unemployment rate. Just one-third of economists said their firms had lifted pay in the last three months, down from more than half of them a year earlier.

Companies are also cutting back on their investments in machinery, computers and other equipment. The proportion of firms increasing their spending on such goods is at its lowest level in five years, the survey found.

Sales are growing more slowly. Just 39% of economists said they rose in the past three months, down from 61% a year earlier. And only 38% said they expect sales to rise in the next three months, also down from 61% a year earlier.

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Many business economists blamed President Trump’s tariffs on steel, aluminum and most imports from China for worsening business conditions. Thirty-five percent said the duties have hurt their companies, while just 7% said they had a positive effect.

Of those who said tariffs had affected their companies, 19% said the tariffs had lowered their sales and 30% said they pushed up costs.

That has cut into profits for many firms. Just 19% of economists said their companies’ profit margins have risen in the past three months, down sharply from 37% a year earlier.

Two-thirds of the economists surveyed now forecast that the U.S. economy will grow just 1.1% to 2% from the third quarter of 2019 through the third quarter of 2020. A year ago, they were more bullish: Nearly three-quarters forecast growth of 2.1% to 3% from the third quarter of 2018 through the third quarter of 2019.

The NABE surveyed 101 economists at companies and trade associations from Sept. 26 through Oct. 14.


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