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Job Growth Still Lacking

An increase in total U.S. jobs remains months away.

Despite economic growth, businesses are still too wary to hire. The loss of an additional 85,000 jobs in December -- more than expected -- indicates that while the economy grew at a strong clip in the fourth quarter of last year, future prospects are still too iffy for employers to add to payrolls.

Solid job gains aren’t likely for at least a couple of more months, until businesses are convinced that the recovery is on solid ground. And then the news won’t be all good. As discouraged unemployed workers again take up their hunt for a steady paycheck, the unemployment rate -- unchanged in December at 10% -- will rise to a peak of around 10.5%. That’s likely in the spring, with the rate easing off as the year progresses and ending 2010 near 10%.

With total U.S. employment down by about 8 million over the past two years, there remains a long road ahead to full recovery. Last month’s net decline in the number of jobs followed a net gain of 4,000 in November. That gain had initially been pegged by government job counters as a loss of 11,000.

That November revision, though small, shouldn’t be minimized. It marks the first monthly net increase in jobs since December 2007, when the recession began. Indeed, the payroll situation has seen fairly steady improvement since last June, when 463,000 jobs were eliminated. That’s tremendous improvement, says Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute think tank. “But you need to create 125,000 a month to accommodate growth in the labor force.”


The general tone of other labor market benchmarks remains tepid. For instance, the average workweek, already low, was unchanged at 33.2 hours last month. An increase will likely precede hiring as companies first extend hours for their existing workers. The average workweek stood at 33.8 hours when the recession began.

Manufacturers again shed jobs in December, but the net loss of 27,000 was the smallest in two years. Construction payrolls fell 53,000, a decline made worse by cold, snowy weather in much of the country last month. Jobs in banks, restaurants, retail and other service industries fell as well. The number of jobs in education and health care increased, as did the number of temporary workers.

One troubling element that continues is the increase in those out of work for more than 27 weeks. That group is about 40% of the unemployed, a share that has doubled since the start of the recession. For workers, that’s particularly worrisome, since the longer a person is unemployed, the harder it becomes to find work.

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