The U.S. labor shortage is reaching a critical point

America’s labor shortage is approaching epidemic proportions, and it could be employers who end up paying.

report Thursday from ADP and Moody’s Analytics cast an even brighter light on what is becoming one of the most important economic stories of 2018: the difficulty employers are having in finding qualified employees to fill a record 6.7 million job openings.

Truck drivers are in perilously low supply, Silicon Valley continues to struggle to fill vacancies, and employers across the grid are coping with a skills mismatch as the economy edges ever closer to full employment.

“Business’ number one problem is finding qualified workers. At the current pace of job growth, if sustained, this problem is set to get much worse,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said in a statement. “These labor shortages will only intensify across all industries and company sizes.”

Private payrolls grew by 177,000 in June, a respectable number but below market expectations. It was the fourth month in a row that the ADP/Moody’s count fell short of 200,000 after four months at or above that level.

The reason for the tick down in hiring certainly isn’t because there aren’t enough jobs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that April closed with 6.7 million job openings. May ended with just over 6 million people the BLS classifies as unemployed, continuing a trend this year that has seen openings eclipse the labor pool for the first time. At some point that gap will have to close. Economists expect that employers are going to have to start doing more to entice workers, likely through pay raises, training and other incentives.

Workers mount solar panel modules during construction of a Silicon Ranch Corp. solar generating facility in Milligan, Tennessee.

Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Workers mount solar panel modules during construction of a Silicon Ranch Corp. solar generating facility in Milligan, Tennessee.

“Pressure is building for employers, and both hard data and anecdotal reports indicate that wage pressures are building,” Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors, said in a note. “With the economy still humming, employers are able to justify stronger wage increases to retain or attract talent, but it’s becoming a more challenging proposition.”

As employers face the pressure, the costs likely will end up getting passed on.

Most inflation measures are at 2 percent or more now, and are likely to continue rising. Companies are reporting record profits, but could find themselves constrained by a double-short of inflation, both from wages and rising costs due to escalating trade tensions and tariffs between the U.S. and its trading partners.

“How much might rising labor costs chew into corporate profits? How much will be passed through to customers in the form of higher prices? That remains to be seen,” Baird said. “Rising labor costs will boost take home pay, but we’re also all likely to see the effect in rising prices for goods and services.”

Those are all issues the Federal Reserve will have to weigh as well.

The U.S. central bank has been raising interest rates as it sees the economy growing and inflation meeting the Fed’s 2 percent target. Fed officials have indicated they will be raising rates two more times in 2018, but the market has been skeptical, with traders assigning just a 51 percent chance of that happening.

The economy has “bumped against the proverbial labor wall,” David Rosenberg, chief economist and strategist at Gluskin Sheff, said in his morning note Thursday. “Inflation pressures will intensify and the Fed will be forced to act more aggressively, just as has been the case in the past. There is no Presidential Tweet that will stop Mother Nature from taking its course.”

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