Last year was especially good for job seekers across most industries, as nearly a decade of positive monthly job growth continued uninterrupted into December. However, the manufacturing sector experienced the month's largest loss, feeling the effects of trade disputes with China following a gradually slowing 2019 marred by an automotive strike in November.
The unemployment rate held fast at 3.5 percent in December, solidifying a .5 percent decrease since January's rate of 4 percent. A total of 145,000 new jobs were added in the year's final month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' last monthly Employment Situation News Release of 2019. While these numbers are a clear sign of continued economic growth, they fell short of the expected 160,000 new jobs projected by Dow Jones.
Meanwhile, wage growth has fallen below 3 percent for the first time in 18 months. So, while it may be increasingly difficult for the average employee to earn a raise, the likelihood of landing a new job for anyone outside of particularly troubled industries has not decreased.
Which industries are growing?
The retail sector saw the greatest increase with 41,200 jobs added in December 2019. Fifteen-thousand jobs were gained in "general merchandise stores," and 9,400 were added in "sporting goods and hobby stores," according to the National Retail Federation (NFR). This growth capped off a year of shrinking employment numbers for the industry, which initially coasted off of 2018's growth with 21,000 jobs added in January. February 2019 saw the start of a slow hiring decline lasting until a slight rebound in November and December.
Even though seasonal hiring rates fell short of projections, the NRF says this admittedly shrinking amount of sustained expansion remains encouraging. "Today's numbers indicate that labor demand remains strong and signals that the economy is more stable than what the financial markets suggest," says Jack Kleinhenz, NRF chief economist.
Further refuting any negativity surrounding December's retail jobs numbers, the NRF's J. Craig Shearman says, "The Bureau of Labor Statistics only counts people who work in stores, not those in corporate headquarters, innovation labs, call centers, distribution centers, warehouses and other fast-growing parts of the industry where an increasing amount of the employment is, as the industry transforms."
Still, the NRF admits seasonal hiring rates did not meet expectations, with 576,800 temporary hires added during November and December, falling short of the projected range of 585,000 to 650,000.
The leisure and hospitality sector saw the month's second-highest degree of growth with 40,000 new jobs added. Overall, the industry gained 388,000 jobs in 2019, eclipsing 2018's figure of 359,000. Similar to retail, the year saw small month-to-month gains until a slightly sharper 85,000 job increase over the last two months of 2019 .
Which industries are slowing?
Manufacturing suffered December's largest loss — 12,000 jobs — thanks to the United States' continued trade disputes with China. While the sector still netted 46,000 new hires last year, 2018 saw 264,000 new manufacturing jobs, suggesting a more severe slowing of the field's growth, according to the jobs report.
Unlike retail, the manufacturing sector's growth stayed mostly flat until the summer, when it added 33,000 jobs over June and July. This was followed by slow-yet-accelerating job loss until the resolution of a strike at General Motors, which was reflected in the November addition of 41,000 jobs to the "motor vehicles and parts" subsector.
In December, manufacturers producing durable goods lost the most employees, though those in nondurable goods weren't far behind. This means factories producing longer-lasting products like cars or household appliances took slightly more severe hits than those who manufacture things like food, makeup and other disposable products.
While the Midwest felt 2019's biggest blows, manufacturers across the region still saw slight employment gains throughout the year, save for those in Michigan, according to The New York Times. Coinciding with that state's standout lack of growth was October's strike at GM, which saw the company's workforce reduced by roughly 17,000. Additionally, a recent report from the Institute for Supply Management points to the fabricated metal industry as manufacturing's worst-suffering area.
"Anticipated large export orders did not materialize," said a respondent to the report. "As a result, expected U.S. production has decreased."
Though a Labor Department report saw 477,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in October, experts tell CNBC they attribute this not only to the strike but a sector-specific skills gap and the Trump administration's ongoing tariff disagreements with China. This suggests affected workers need to demonstrate skills more relevant to today's increasingly technical manufacturing jobs or transition to other industries. For those who wish to stay in the field, skills related to software, automation and data analysis are increasingly in demand.
Transportation and warehousing experienced the second-largest decline with 10,400 jobs lost. Again, while employment in the industry increased by 57,000 in 2019, that number is dwarfed by the field's gain of 216,000 jobs in 2018. Most months actually saw gradual job loss in the sector, with sporadic growth in January, June, September and November tipping the year's average into positive figures.
Even with the recently signed phase-one trade deal with China, seasonal boosts to the retail and hospitality sectors during the holidays, and continued (yet slowing) job growth, December's jobs report suggests a gradual economic deceleration consistent with preceding months. Yet while employment remains at a record high, now is still the best time for the majority of job seekers to polish their resumes and write cover letters to potential new employers.
How job seekers can continue to thrive
Those wishing to thrive in retail, for example, might write a resume that reflects more management skills on their resume, helping them ascend toward leadership roles less likely to see eventual layoffs. These skills might include or be related to recruitment, payroll, inventory management or budgeting.
How job seekers can survive
Those worried about facing layoffs in manufacturing or transportation and warehousing should look for warning signs in their own workplaces, even before labor organizations and the media report mass job losses. If employees notice reduced hiring, budget cuts or more closed-door, management-only meetings, it may be time to tweak their resumes and brush up on interviewing techniques.
Most importantly, cultivating and highlighting transferable skills will help ensure the largest possible pool of potential job opportunities. Job seekers should take stock of every talent they've developed that might be transferable to the next job they seek, even if they are completely new to that role.
Universally-relevant soft skills include written and verbal communication, organizational skills and problem-solving. Some transferable hard skills include proficiencies with relevant computer programs, the ability to speak multiple languages and the practical application of mathematics.
If job seekers take these types of steps to prepare, even if layoffs are indeed in their future, it'll be easier to land their next role.