CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
Hi, everyone. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Cardiff Garcia. And today is Day 1 of my co-host Stacey Vanek Smith being away on book leave for a couple of months. She's writing a book. We miss you already, Stacey. Hurry back. Today's also Jobs Friday.
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GARCIA: And on this Jobs Friday, we've got three listener questions that are going to be answered by Martha Gimbel, our old friend, the economic research director at the Indeed Hiring Lab. Martha, how are you?
MARTHA GIMBEL: I'm doing well; it's Jobs Day.
GARCIA: It is indeed. Before we actually do that, let's analyze today's report real quick first, though, OK? A hundred and sixty-four thousand jobs created in the month of July. Meh?
GIMBEL: Meh, but fine.
GIMBEL: I mean, what we're seeing is that job growth is slowing down from last year, which we all kind of knew was going to happen but is still emotionally difficult to process.
GARCIA: But it's still enough jobs created to keep up with the population growth. So it's still a pretty decent number for this point in a recovery now that has lasted more than 10 years, right?
GIMBEL: It's an astonishing number at this point in the recovery; it's just down from last year when frankly the numbers were juiced a little bit by government spending.
GARCIA: So still a lot of jobs being created each month - a little bit less than last year, but not bad. OK, well, after the break, Martha is going to answer some listener questions. We solicited those questions about a week ago. You sent them in, and Martha is going to answer them. Very exciting stuff.
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GARCIA: OK, listeners, you sent in some questions. We've got Martha Gimbel, economic research director of the Indeed Hiring Lab and all-around labor market expert. She's going to answer those questions. Let's get right to the first one.
BRYSON: Hey, this is Bryson (ph) from Denver, Colo. In a slowing economy, is there a sector of jobs that gets hit first or gets hit hardest?
GIMBEL: So there's two answers to this. So first is that recessions don't just happen; they happen for a reason. And so whatever sector is involved in the reason why the recession is happening is going to get hit first and hardest. So we saw this with construction, right?
GARCIA: Because the housing market collapsed before the last recession.
GARCIA: So construction jobs fell off a cliff, OK.
GIMBEL: Exactly. And it took a really long time for the unemployment rate for construction workers to recover because the construction market had really suffered. So first, it's just a question about where the next recession is coming from, and right now none of us really know, so.
GARCIA: None of us, so it's a hard thing to predict.
GIMBEL: Hard thing to predict.
GIMBEL: The other answer is that, in general, the goods sector tends to fall first and hardest. So when I say goods sector, I mean industries like mining and logging, manufacturing and construction.
GARCIA: The industries that make physical, tangible stuff.
GIMBEL: Exactly. And those are industries that, in general, just tend to be more volatile, and they tend to be more responsive to headwinds. The other thing is that there are industries that tend to hold up well in recessions. So for instance, during the last recession, education and health services didn't have a single month of negative job growth.
GARCIA: So these are people in the health care sector, like doctors and nurses.
GARCIA: And then, I'm assuming in education, this would be teachers or school administrators - those kinds of jobs.
GIMBEL: Actually, teachers and school administrators can fall into a different category of government because they're...
GIMBEL: ...They fall into the public sector. So we're really talking about any kind of private educational service that you might pay for - think a tutor.
GARCIA: Excellent. All right, let's go to the second listener question.
EVERETT MCEWAN: Hello, INDICATOR. This is Everett McEwan (ph) in Morrison, Colo. And my question about the labor market is, as a freelancer, are jobs still being created for freelancers or is job growth hurting freelancers and the gig economy?
GARCIA: This is an interesting question because we've heard a lot about how companies have been essentially outsourcing some of the roles that they used to hire permanent jobs for. This question seems to be, are companies now bringing back some of those jobs into their own fold, into their own companies, as permanent jobs?
GIMBEL: Yeah, so I love this question because the gig economy is actually incredibly hard to measure. So we've had some groups looking into this. The JPMorgan Chase Institute did a great report on the gig economy in 2013, for anyone who's interested. And what they found was that people were really using it to smooth income of - you know, for some reason, my income is lower this month than I expected; I'm going go and drive for Uber for a while.
GARCIA: So that most people were doing it as a kind of side hustle - that's most of the gig economy.
GIMBEL: Now, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has tried to measure this, but they haven't had the funding to run what we refer to as the Contingent Worker Supplement for a while. So they ran it in 2017, and they ran it in 2005, and they looked at specifically the number of independent contractors. So actually, Cardiff, I'm going to ask you a question.
GIMBEL: If you had to guess if the percent of workers who were independent contractors was higher in 2017 or in 2005, what would you guess?
GARCIA: I would probably guess a little higher, yeah, because we've heard so much about this, and I would be wrong, right?
GIMBEL: Yes, you would absolutely wrong.
GIMBEL: I was totally setting you up. So it was in fact slightly higher in 2005 than in 2017. But that also doesn't necessarily mean that the story about growth and freelancing growth in contracting is wrong. The economy was really different in 2005 than it was in 2017. And so because we haven't had that survey run consistently, it's really hard to separate out how much of that change was about an actual structural change or just a different cyclical point in the economy.
GARCIA: OK. Let's go to question number three.
JESSICA: My name is Jessica (ph). I am a college student. And as someone about to enter the workforce, I find one predicted trend particularly terrifying and that is the number of U.S. workers at risk of being replaced by technology. When do I have to start worrying about the robots taking over?
GARCIA: There's been so much hype about this issue, about the robots essentially automating away all of our jobs, and then, while most of us are unemployed, the only people making any money are the people who own all the robots. Is this a legitimate thing to worry about?
GIMBEL: So I think the narrative around automation and job loss has been really overblown. There really isn't evidence that automation is coming for our jobs. I'll actually note that productivity growth, which is one way of measuring kind of technological progress, has actually been low and not at the levels that you would expect to see if we were all about to lose our jobs to giant robots. If you ask most economists, they're much more worried about low productivity growth than robots coming for our jobs.
GARCIA: So I want to be clear, though, because there are some sectors within the economy, specific sectors, that probably are more vulnerable to automation than other sectors. So specifically I'm thinking of, like, factory jobs. I mean, those jobs can be automated - right? - if you come up with better machines, better robots or better technology.
GIMBEL: Yeah. And, you know, BLS actually goes out and...
GARCIA: Bureau of Labor Statistics.
GIMBEL: Bureau of Labor Statistics goes out and projects which jobs are going to grow fastest in the future, and those tend to be things like personal care services, health care, computer and mathematical occupations - so the jobs that are going to be working on the robots or jobs that are going to be working with humans. And the jobs they predict are going to go away or grow more slowly tend to be things that are, like, production jobs, so manufacturing or agriculture.
GARCIA: So I think the thing that worries a lot of people about the idea that technology might replace their jobs is that, in the past, technology tended to automate away jobs that required a lot of, like, muscle movement, picking things up - right? - factory jobs, whereas now technology is being worked on that is intended to replace what happens in our heads - right? - mental work. And so if that technology gets really great, then maybe even some jobs that look like they're, you know, completely impregnable to automation will start to be chipped away at by automation as well.
GIMBEL: And one of the occupations that BLS projects will grow the most slowly over the next 10 years is office and administrative support - so a service occupation, but one that is more routine and might be more susceptible to those kinds of technological innovations. But I do want to point out that, you know, that part of technological progress is, some jobs go away, but that we get new ones as well.
GARCIA: And jobs specifically that arrive, the new ones, that work alongside the technology and might even make us better at our jobs than we were in the past.
GIMBEL: Exactly. Robots can be our friends.
GARCIA: (Laughter) Martha Gimbel, thanks so much for being here.
GIMBEL: Of course.
GARCIA: If you want to hear more specifically about today's jobs report from Martha, go to our Instagram page - that is at @planetmoney - where we also have some frankly adorable surprises in store for you. Today's INDICATOR episode was produced by Rachel Cohn, edited by Paddy Hirsch and fact-checked by Emily Lang. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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