Opinion: Layoffs are coming, but not in every industry

Opinion: Layoffs are coming, but not in every industry

Editor’s Note: Dana Peterson is chief economist at The Conference Board. Frank Steemers is senior economist at The Conference Board. The views expressed here are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.


As recession worries grow, it begs the question: Which sectors are most likely to start shedding jobs?

We at The Conference Board decided to construct an index to help answer that question.

Dana Peterson

Frank Steemers

The industries at most risk are information, transportation and warehousing, and construction, followed by repair and personal services, manufacturing, real estate and wholesale trade.

Over the past two years, employers have had a difficult time recruiting and retaining workers. An aging population, tighter immigration laws, fewer multiple jobholders and residual effects from the pandemic (long Covid, child care and adult care challenges, for instance) have led to constraints on the number of workers, while demand for labor has been strong.

Now, as high inflation has persisted and the Federal Reserve has rapidly increased interest rates, the larger cost of borrowing can be expected to have a more profound, negative impact on the US economy this year, and may result in a short and shallow recession. Even though the labor market has continued to be resilient, some employers are shedding jobs to protect their bottom lines.

Of course, employers have experienced varying degrees of labor shortages, with some industries suffering more than others. The difficulty in hiring and retaining workers will drive how many job losses can be expected in individual industries. Employers with severe labor shortages will likely be careful about laying off workers, because this would risk facing the same hiring difficulties all over again after a downturn.

Indeed, according to The Conference Board’s new Job Loss Risk Index, which identifies each industry’s relative chances of experiencing layoffs, those at greatest risk of job loss have generally had fewer labor shortages, while those at low risk have had the greatest recruitment and retention difficulties.

6 factors determine the likelihood of job loss

Labor shortages are one of the key factors in the new index, but not the only one. The index incorporates five other factors to ascertain a particular industry’s job-loss likelihood. Others include: sensitivity to monetary policy, job function and required education levels, the state of its pandemic recovery, longer-term labor demand trends and its workforce’s age composition and experience levels.

The information industry, which encompasses a large share of tech companies and includes jobs like software and web developers, programmers and digital interface designers, has already started laying off workers. Information sector employment grew rapidly during the pandemic due to a surge in consumer and business demand for computers, high-tech gadgets, innovation, digital transformation and automation. That hiring fueled tech company growth expectations and stock price increases.

High-growth company evaluations are more sensitive to interest rate hikes because these firms are often highly leveraged, which means growth is more dependent on borrowing. As such, rising interest rates increase the cost of borrowing and servicing debt. With the Fed swiftly raising rates to control inflation, valuations are down, and companies feel pressure to reduce spending which includes hiring freezes and layoffs.

As pandemic-era lockdowns catalyzed consumers’ preferences for online shopping, transportation and warehousing companies boosted hiring for jobs like delivery and truck drivers and warehouse workers. But these industries are now poised for layoffs, given shoppers’ tendency to reduce their discretionary spending during recessions, and the recent shift of consumption from goods toward services.

At medium risk of job losses are finance and insurance, utilities, mining and logging, and professional and business services (e.g., accounting, legal, consulting, advertising), with jobs in arts and recreation, retail trade, and state and local governments at somewhat lower risk.

Industries likely to be the most resilient are accommodation and food services, health care and social assistance, the federal government and private education.

The ‘safest’ industries

Over the past two years, employers in accommodation, food services, health care and social assistance have had greater difficulty hiring and retaining workers. The pandemic made finding people willing to work in these in-person service industries especially challenging.

These employers will likely try to hold on to their workers as rehiring could be difficult and expensive. On top of that, employment growth has been strong in the health care sector as an aging US population requires more health care and social assistance services.

Restaurant and hotel employment is still below pre-pandemic levels. The industry is still catching up with recovering demand, so there is less of a need for upcoming layoffs.

Job losses will definitely accompany the looming recession, but the prospect of labor shortages reappearing will make some employers more cautious about implementing layoffs. Employment in in-person services like accommodation and food services, as well as health care, will benefit the most. Although, as the Job Loss Risk Index demonstrates, risks remain for all.


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