Economists Predict U.S. 'Hiring Boom' During Spring and Summer as Jobless Claims Top 744K

The U.S. economy has been strengthening in recent months, showing signs of improvement after the damage of the pandemic.

The International Monetary Fund predicted this week that the U.S. economy will grow 6.4 percent in 2021. That would be the fastest annual growth since 1984, and the strongest among the world's wealthiest countries.

In March, employers added 916,000 jobs, the most since August of last year. The unemployment rate declined from 6.2 percent to 6 percent. In February, the pace of job openings reached its highest level on record. Consumer confidence posted its highest reading in a year during March.

Though things are predicted to improve further as the year goes on, the number of Americans applying for unemployment rose to 744,000 last week signaling that employers are still cutting jobs. The Labor Department said Thursday that applications had increased by 16,000 from 728,000 a week prior.

By historical standards, unemployment numbers are still very high. Before the pandemic, weekly applications were typically fewer than 220,000 a week.

A 'we are hiring sign'
A 'we are hiring sign' in front of the Buya restaurant on March 5, in Miami. The official unemployment rate of 6.2 percent is less than the real rate of joblessness, a White House adviser has said. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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For the week ending March 27, more than 3.7 million people were receiving traditional state unemployment benefits, the government said. If you include supplemental federal programs that were established last year to help the unemployed endure the health crisis, a total of 18.2 million are receiving some form of jobless aid the week of March 20.

Economists monitor weekly jobless claims for early signs of where the job market is headed. Applications are usually a proxy for layoffs: They typically decline as the economy improves. Or they rise as employers retrench in response to sluggish consumer demand.

During the pandemic, though, the numbers have become a less reliable barometer. States have struggled to clear backlogs of unemployment applications, and suspected fraud has clouded the actual volume of job cuts.

Most economists say they think the still-high level of unemployment applications should gradually fade.

"Jobless claims may bounce around week to week as the recovery takes hold, but we expect they will start to decline more consistently as the economy gains momentum," economists Nancy Vanden Houten and Gregory Daco of Oxford Economics said in a research note. "We expect the stellar March jobs report to be the first of many and look for a hiring boom in the spring and summer months.″

Still, the United States still has 8.4 million fewer jobs than it had in February 2020, just before the pandemic struck. New confirmed coronavirus cases, which had dropped sharply from early January through early March, have plateaued over the past month. In addition, the vaccination rate for elderly Americans, who are among the most vulnerable, has dramatically slowed even as the supply of vaccines has expanded.

And the data firm Womply reports that the percentage of businesses that remained closed last week rose from the beginning of March—from 38 percent to 45 percent for bars; from 35 percent to 46 percent for beauty shops; and from 30 percent to 38 percent for restaurants.