Dan Diamond, Managing Editor
Is the health sector growing or shrinking? It only seems like the federal government can't make up its mind.
Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said that health care had lost jobs in January. But on Friday, the agency concluded that the sector actually grew by 6,500 jobs in January (and added another 9,500 jobs in February).
It's the third time in four months that the agency has reversed itself on whether or not health care has lost jobs, which points to a challenge in how the BLS collects its data: Agency economists rely on initial estimates that get finely tuned in subsequent months. (That point gets overlooked in most major headlines.)
But there's a bigger story here than month-to-month fluctuations. At this point, the issue isn't whether the BLS will report a small negative dip in the health care sector.
It's that health care's job growth has tightened up so much, a negative number wouldn't be a surprise.
That tightening can be seen in the chart above. And the data is telling a striking story about the past few months:
- Across the past decade, the health care sector grew by about 23,000 jobs every month.
- But between December 2013 and February 2014, the BLS projects the sector gained less than 18,000 total jobs. That's the slowest three-month period on record.
There's reason to be cautious about these latest figures—the 2014 data points are still just estimates, which means that the BLS's economists will update their headcount for January and February again.
However, there is a number we can be more confident about: BLS's 2013 data, which the agency has finalized. And those figures reinforce the broader trend of slowing growth or, forgive me, "slowth."
Specifically, while the industry is still booming compared to other sectors, the growth in health care jobs last year was the slowest since 1999.
And the chief culprit: the slowdown in hospital hiring, which began in earnest last summer.
Had hospital jobs grown at their traditional rates, 2013 would have been an average—or even banner—year for health care jobs growth. Instead, hospitals lost a slim 500 jobs in 2013, the sector's first down year since 1994.
In an upcoming blog post, I'll take a closer look at what's going on with hospitals and health care employment, and what the numbers are telling experts about broader industry trends.
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