Those still working are busier than ever

A business woman packs her schedule.

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Kai Ryssdal: The unemployment number that's going to come out tomorrow morning is going to give us a pretty good snapshot of where the labor market was in the month of October. It's probably safe to expect a higher unemployment rate. And fewer jobs in the economy. But there was a number that came out today that speaks volumes about the labor market yet to come. Last quarter, worker productivity grew at its fastest rate in six years. The formula's pretty simple. Widgets produced per hour worked. So today's report means the people who still have jobs are working harder than they used to. That makes up for people who lost their jobs. It also spares their employers from having to hire anybody new. From New York, Marketplace's Jeremy Hobson explains.


JEREMY HOBSON: Remember that famous "I Love Lucy" scene where Lucy and Ethel have to wrap the bon bons speeding by on the conveyer belt?

LUCY'S BOSS: If one piece of candy gets past you and into the packing room unwrapped, you're fired.

A minute later, poor performance notwithstanding, the boss says, it's time to ramp up productivity.

LUCY'S BOSS: Fine, you're doing splendidly. Speed it up a little!

Well, that, in a chocolate-covered nutshell, is what companies are doing to the rest of us.

MARK ZANDI: They're asking their existing workers to really step it up.

Mark Zandi is chief economist at Moody's Economy.com. He says productivity is up not because we're worried we'll be fired if we don't work hard enough. It's that our bosses don't want to hire new people until they're sure the economy really is recovering.

ZANDI: Businesses are just nervous that the demand that they've seen isn't for real, isn't going to be maintained into next year. They're going to wait and see to make sure that it is for real, and then at the point, they'll go out and start hiring again.

But won't companies get used to all this productivity and decide they don't need to hire?

Labor relations professor Gary Chaison at Clark University say no.

GARY CHAISON: As productivity increases, there'll be economic growth, companies will expand. And hopefully they'll be able to translate that into jobs.

We'll get an idea of how the nation is doing in job creation when the Labor Department reports on October unemployment tomorrow. Chaison says if you still have your job and are working yourself to the bone, things may ease a little as the economy recovers but probably not much. He says companies have gotten a taste of more for less, and they seem to like it.

In New York, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.

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