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Americans Finding More Jobs, in More Categories

Though there’s still too much slack in the workforce, the improvement is palpable.

Not only has the pace of job growth accelerated in recent months, but also the hiring is spreading out to a range of sectors. And that’s good news, no matter how you cut it.

Health care continues to lead the pack. It skated through the recession, adding a half million jobs even as the overall economy was losing about 8.5 million. Help wanted signs are out for physical and occupational therapists, nurses, speech pathologists, radiation technologists and cardiological technologists, to name a few examples. A raft of cities, among them Pittsburgh, Orlando and Las Vegas, will benefit from expansion of medical services as the population continues to age.

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Also hiring: Financial services, after going through the wringer during the recession. Accountants, bookkeepers and managers are finding work. Business and professional services, where there are more jobs for management consultants, lawyers, executive secretaries, office managers and others providing administrative support. And sales and marketing -- retail clerks, customer service reps and so on.

Even hotels and restaurants are picking up. McDonald’s aims to add 50,000 as a national hiring day on April 19, boosting its U.S. workforce by almost 8%. Although some scoff that most of the jobs will go to low-paid burger flippers, youngsters, from 16 to 24, need paychecks, too. Their jobless rate hit a whopping 19.5% late last year.

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What’s more, as Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wells Fargo Securities, notes, an important byproduct of younger workers being hired by McDonald’s is the experience they gain, helping them become more productive at other jobs down the road.

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Manufacturing jobs are finally on the rise, too. Some examples: A new Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., will add about 3,000 jobs, and General Motors is adding a third shift at a plant in Flint, Mich. At manufacturing firms of all types, managers complain that it’s hard to find experienced machinists and engineers.

But the picture isn’t totally sunny. Some dark clouds hover: The pace of overall growth is slow, as employers continue to hold down costs and wring more production from the existing workforce. Manufacturing production, for example, is up 12% since it hit bottom during the recession, but hiring has climbed a mere 2%.

Construction jobs are just starting to hit bottom. Down two million since the recession began, the sector has gained 36,000 jobs since January. The sector won’t add many jobs for years.

And sluggish wage hikes are a concern. Some slack is good, preventing a surge in pay that would fuel inflation. But right now, there’s simply too much slack. About 13.5 million people are unemployed, about 30% of them have been out of a job for more than a year, making it especially tough for them to break back into the workplace because new skills are constantly being tacked on to job requirements. Roughly 2.5 million are able to work but have quit trying to find a job for at least the past month. And an additional 8.4 million people are making do with part-time work though they want a full-time schedule, and pay.

As a result, wage increases this year will roughly match inflation -- with both rising about 2.5%. Increasing energy prices make matters worse, cutting into the real value of wages and discouraging firms -- especially the small ones that fuel job growth -- from hiring.

Without fatter paychecks, consumer spending, which accounts for about 70% of gross domestic product, can’t grow much. Or as Diane Swonk, chief economist with Mesirow Financial, puts it: With annualized GDP growth stuck around 3%, the economy is just treading water.

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