One of the key areas of pain is in privately run, as opposed to state-operated, companies. The private sector contributed to more than 90 percent of new jobs in 2017 and accounts for more than 60 percent of economic growth, according to a state media report last year. But in the fourth quarter, Miller said, hiring by private firms saw the greatest slowdown from the prior quarter that the Beige Book has ever recorded.
Private enterprises have struggled in the last two years as Beijing cracked down on their primary means of financing, the so-called shadow banking system. The giant state-owned banks prefer to lend only to state-owned enterprises, which are considered safer borrowers than private firms; China lacks a standard system for companies to prove they can pay back their loans.
After signs the shadow banking crackdown likely went too far, too fast, Chinese authorities tried to cut lending rates and encouraged banks to lend to small and medium-sized enterprises.
The government is also increasing job training programs in regions where trade tensions are having a greater impact, Meng Wei, spokeswoman for the National Reform and Development Commission said at a press conference in late October. She noted that U.S.-China trade tensions have caused some uncertainty in the labor market, and that the government has made stability in employment a priority. The commission is the state's economic planning agency.
It's unclear when and whether those initiatives will have a material effect.
The latest round of government stimulus compares with similar efforts around the stock market drop and economic slowdown during 2015 and 2016.
"But the situation is arguably worse this time, as the service-sector employers that previously absorbed many laid-off workers are now being squeezed by tighter regulations," Gavekal's Cui said in her report. "Government officials are trying to adjust and soften policies to help employment, but the outlook for household income and consumer spending in China in 2019 is clearly worsening."
She did add, though, in an interview with CNBC that she doesn't expect the labor market to worsen much from this point given the latest policy announcements — although trade tensions remain an uncertainty. Manufacturing also accounts for about 20 percent of the urban job market, Cui said, which means the industry's challenges do not necessarily reflect the broader labor market.