March 2020 employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reflect the calm before the storm, the “lull before the tempest” (to coin a phrase), and gives us a sense of where we were before everything went south.

Overall printing employment in March was little changed from February (-0.7%). On a year-over-year basis, it was down -3.1%. Interestingly, production employment was down -0.1% from February to March, and year-over-year was down -1.9%—while non-production employment was down -2.2% from February to March—and year-over-year was down -5.5%. My how quickly things change; in our last printing employment report on March 13, we said, “The employment situation has become rather fraught; with unemployment as low as it is...businesses in general—and in our industry in particular—are having a tough time finding and retaining workers, and not just production but all across the enterprise.” As the song says, “In a New York minute/Everything can change.” And it did; we’ll find out later today to what extent.

Elsewhere in the March report, publishing employment had been up +2.2% year-over-year, newspapers again continued to take a hit employment-wise: down -10.7% from February 2019 to February 2020. Periodicals were not as bad, with a -6.5% decline in employment from February to February.

The creative markets, as is the fashion, were doing a bit better than printing and publishing. From February to March, ad agencies including PR were down -0.8% and down -0.4% year-over-year. PR had at one time been a hotspot, but had been becoming less of one, and the current crisis will not reverse that trend.

The “trouble finding employees” issue will likely become less acute, especially given how the unemployment rate has been climbing. We said in March that no one knows how this will play out, and we still don’t. Here in early May, parts of the country are starting to re-open, which could very well hit the reset button and put us back in March if the number of positive coronavirus cases takes off again, which would be very bad indeed.