Jobs Numbers Explained: Employers Add 244,000, But Unemployment Ticks Up

May 6, 2011 9:33am

ABC's Dan Arnall (@abcmoneyguy) reports:

The recovery is on track according to new government figures on the nation’s jobs situation out this morning even though the unemployment rate ticked back up to 9 percent. 

The monthly jobs report for April shows solid hiring across many sectors of the economy. Employers added 244,000 new positions during April, the strongest month since last year’s Census-inspired hiring boom.

The report bested economist expectations (+185,000). Upward revisions to both February and March’s results added another 46,000 to the previous totals.

When one looks only at the private sector – factoring out gov’t hiring and firing – we’re seeing a lovely trend, with some 1.7 million positions added in the past year. For the past 14 months we’ve seen private firms adding to payrolls – not a single month of net jobs loss. Since February 2010 the private sector has added 2 million new jobs, an average of 150,000 per month.

The nation’s unemployment rate – the result of a separate but simultaneously released survey of households instead of businesses – showed an uptick to 9.0 percent. 

That “rate” translates into some 13.7 million Americans wanted to work last month but were unable to find any. That kind of move is statistically significant, and is likely the result of people who were discouraged (didn’t believe there was work available so they didn’t even look) coming back into the mix for a job.

Economists had been predicting a steady state of the unemployment rate at last month’s 8.8 percent, but because the move can likely be attributed to people coming back into the labor force after dropping out, it’s likely a good thing. Several are saying this move is an expected part of the “healing” of the jobs market. 

One bit of bright news – the number of long-term unemployed people (those who have been out of work for more than 27 weeks) dropped significantly last month. According to government figures, there are 283,000 fewer long-term unemployed in April than in March. Year-over-year the figure has dropped by 820,000.

The broader unemployment rate, which includes people who took part-time work when they wanted full-time or were just not looking because they didn’t believe there was a job out there is now at 15.9 percent (or 24 million). That’s actually pretty good as this measure – called the U-6 – was at 17 percent a year ago.

The three-month trend – which shows an average of 233,000 new jobs each month is encouraging.
“…this should indicate the economy is finally accomplishing momentum; however, rising gas prices and sluggish consumer demand clouds the outlook,” writes Peter Morici, a professor and economist at the University of Maryland.

An there’s the problem. The recent economic news has been mixed. Tepid first quarter economic growth, tied with rocketing oil prices and geopolitical uncertainty don’t make for the best soil in which to be growing a recovery.

While this month’s report is generally good, there are nagging questions about whether we’ll be able to continue on the slow, but steady growth path we’ve seen for jobs in the past year. Companies which see uncertainty in the near-term are unlikely to continue hiring for fear that they get ahead of the economy.

It’s a doubt which will continue to cloud the outlook for the next few months. A drop in oil prices, continued consumer spending and a news cycle that’s not chock-a-block with tragedy might help lighten the mood by the end of summer and inspire some confidence in our future prospects.
During the month, hiring was broadly spread throughout most of the private sector. Here’s where the hiring and firing was happening during April:

• Manufacturers (+29,000) were hiring in April. A relatively weak dollar is helping boost sales of American-made products abroad.

• Construction firms (+5,000) were hiring in April, but just a bit. Since early 2010 construction has been at a plateau as the housing market continues to be weak..

• Leisure & Hospitality (+46,000) was booming as consumers took the family out to eat and started to enjoy the spring holidays. Restaurants and bars added workers (+26,800) like crazy during the past two months.

• Retail (+57,000) employment saw a hiring boom in April. Digging in you can see Americans buying stuff again: auto dealers (+4,700), electronics stores (+5,600), building and garden stores (+5,600), clothing stores (+6,100) and general merchandisers (+27,400) all posting new positions.

• The transportation sector (+4,100) was saw tepid hiring during April, but a lot of that came from trucking firms (+4,500) which is a positive foreshadowing of future hiring in other sectors.

• Financial firms (+4,000) saw a slight bump in April. There was an uptick in hiring in the Real Estate (+7,200) subsector as the home buying season has started. 

• Health care (+37,300) continued to add workers. 

• Temp positions (-2.3K) saw a dip in hiring during April – might this be where employers cut back during the month? 

• The Federal government (-2,000) was unchanged, while state governments (-8,000) and city governments (-14,000) continued their trend of laying people off to match payrolls to tax receipts.

The next jobs report is scheduled to be released on June 3rd.

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