US economy set for epic hiring spree as services jobs return

The U.S. economy is set for a hiring boom in the months ahead as the coronavirus pandemic recedes. There are signs it’s already underway.

Kevin Vaughan, the owner of six bars and restaurants in the Chicago area, says he plans to double the size of his 90-person staff in the coming weeks. He’s already brought back about 40 workers in the past month as the city reopened indoor dining at 50% capacity.

“We’ve seen a noticeable uptick in business in the last few weeks as the weather got a little bit better,” Vaughan said. “And we’ve been rehiring people immediately.”

Bars and restaurants across the country added almost 300,000 jobs in February, marking the first substantial increase in four months, according to Labor Department data. Forecasters say the vaccine rollout and the growth of personal savings will encourage Americans to spend, and employers will be keen to meet the demand.

Economists at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. see the unemployment rate falling to 4.1% by the end of the year from 6.2% in February. Hiring should be especially swift since two thirds of the remaining pandemic job losses are in industries hard hit by the virus.

Among the firms already sticking up help-wanted signs are Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., which has put on 19,000 staff and managers to chop veggies and cook meat on grills over the past couple of months. Meanwhile Colorado-based Noodles &Co. is looking for cashiers, cooks and managers at its 454 locations across 29 states. The pasta chain plans to open 10 new stores this year after unit growth stalled last year amid the pandemic.

It’s far from an all-clear for an economy that’s still down 9.5 million jobs from pre-pandemic levels. Some positions in manufacturing and other industries will be gone for good, forcing workers to hunt for work in new industries at potentially lower wages. Fast-food restaurants that have surged on drive-thru need fewer employees to clean bathrooms and check the soda machines.

The leisure and hospitality sector in particular has a long way to go. Headcount was 20%, or 3.5 million jobs, below pre-pandemic levels as of February. Employment in a category referred to by the Labor Department as personal and laundry services — which captures everything from salons to dry-cleaners to parking garages — was still down 16%.

Still, problems finding workers should dwindle as the vaccine rollout facilitates a return to in-person schooling and reduces fears of catching Covid-19 on the job, according to Brian Rose, a senior economist at UBS Financial Services Inc.

“As the economy reopens, the problems keeping people out of the labor force should ease,” Rose wrote in a March 12 report. “Job growth should shift to sectors like leisure and hospitality where there are millions of available workers.

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