Some bright spots emerge in tough job market

Signs of stabilization in the job market are emerging, according to several private surveys, as restaurants, mortgage servicers and health centers step up hiring.

About a quarter of manufacturing companies and more than 40% of service-sector employers plan to hire workers in June, the highest totals in six months, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Still, the figures are substantially lower than they were a year ago.

The Conference Board said last week that online job ads rose by 250,000 in May to 3.37 million, the first increase since October and the largest jump since October 2006.

Still, economists caution that jobs overall will remain scarce for months because most employers are likely to wait until the economy grows at a healthy pace before they feel confident enough to add workers. That might not happen until well into 2010, many economists say.

The nation's jobless rate jumped to a 25-year high of 9.4% in May — a stark reminder of the difficulty unemployed workers are having finding jobs. The Federal Reserve expects unemployment to remain elevated until 2011.

Meanwhile, more people are seeking fewer jobs. A Labor Department report Tuesday showed that total job openings fell in April to 2.5 million, from 2.6 million the previous month.

With 13.7 million people unemployed in March, that meant more than five people were competing, on average, for each job opening. That's up sharply from fewer than two people per job a year ago.

Other private surveys reflect that weak outlook. Manpower MAN said Tuesday that its quarterly employment outlook survey found only 15% of respondents planned to increase hiring in the third quarter this year. About 13% expect to cut staffing, and 67% plan no changes.

That's little changed from the current quarter.

The Labor Department's report Tuesday, known as Job Openings and Labor Turnover, did show some pockets of growth for the first time in months: openings for lawyers, accountants and other professional business services rose by 30,000 to 458,000.

Restaurants and hotels also advertised about 55,000 more openings in April than in March, the report said. Restaurant operators added nearly 9,000 jobs in May, according to the government's employment report Friday. That's the first time the industry has added workers in 10 months, said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for research at the National Restaurant Association.

"Restaurant operators in general are growing more optimistic about the economy," he said.

That's particularly true among fast-food and other low-cost restaurants. This reflects greater frugality by consumers, who are saving more of their paychecks as home prices fall, stock portfolios dwindle and layoffs spread.

Hiring has also ramped up among banks and other lenders. In part, that's because low interest rates have led to a surge of mortgage refinancings.

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