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Challenger Gray: Layoffs in 2019 hit highest level in four years

Julia La Roche

Companies cut the highest number of jobs in four years during 2019, according to a new report from executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

U.S. employers shed 592,556 jobs last year, which according to Challenger’s data was up 10% from a year ago and the highest level since 2015. During that year, some 598,510 positions disappeared from company payrolls, even as the labor market has remained surprisingly robust.

Retail lost the most jobs for the third consecutive year, with 77,475 cuts in 2019 — but that's down 21.4% from the 98,563 jobs shed in 2018, the report found.

More than half of retail’s nearly 49,000 job losses were due to bankruptcies that swept through a battered industry already being pressured by the growing surge of consumers buying things on the web. Layoffs also occurred amid the ongoing U.S.-China trade war that created “difficulties" that led to 11,688 cuts — and tariffs accounting for another 5,881, according to Challenger’s data.

“The sectors with the highest number of cuts this year were all dealing with trade concerns, emerging technologies, and shifts in consumer behavior. We tracked a lot of hiring activity in these industries as well as cuts,” Andrew Challenger, Vice President of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said in a statement.

‘Still unfolding’

The main reason for job losses in 2019 was restructuring, which Challenger said was responsible for 137,969 jobs being eliminated. Unit closures were responsible for 130,748 cuts, while bankruptcies claimed 62,136 positions, the report said.

Amid a stiff challenge from internet behemoths like Amazon (AMZN), the 2010’s were a lost decade for retail, characterized by major bankruptcies and brands that disappeared.

“E-commerce's impact on retail is still unfolding but appears to be diminishing," Moody's Analytics' Evan Karson wrote in a commentary, noting that job cuts for retail "will likely decrease further in 2020 as firms adapt successfully to structural shifts.”

Aside from retail, Industrial Goods manufacturing saw 70,894 cuts, up 156.5% from the 27,644 in 2018, and the highest level since 2009's 125,423 cuts.

Technology companies also shed over 64,000 roles in 2019 — an increase of 350.9% from the 14,230 jobs cut in the prior year. And the auto industry saw the highest number of job cuts since the financial crisis, with 50,776 jobs eliminated in 2019, up 66% from a year ago. In 2009, the car industry lost 174,192 jobs.

According to Challenger Gray, the pace of cuts in the fourth quarter of 2019 may have slowed, with eliminations tracking for 127,687 — the lowest quarterly level since the Q3 2018. The month of December saw 32,843 job cuts — the lowest monthly total since July 2018.

"Confidence was high heading into the last month of the year. With some resolutions occurring in the trade war and strong consumer spending in the fourth quarter, companies appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach as we head into 2020," Challenger said in a statement.

Julia La Roche is a Correspondent at Yahoo FinanceFollow her on Twitter.

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