What do the jobless numbers mean?

John Dimsdale Feb 5, 2010

What do the jobless numbers mean?

John Dimsdale Feb 5, 2010


KAI RYSSDAL: So, jobs. By now you’ve heard the numbers. There were 20,000 fewer jobs in the American economy at the end of January than there were on New Year’s Day. And yet the unemployment rate — that is, the percentage of the work force unable to find work — fell to 9.7 percent. That discrepancy you can chalk up to the way the data’s collected. It’s not a huge issue, at least for a single month. But it does leave us at something of an economic crossroads.

Because while today’s report was more promising than not, what does it tell us about where things might be going? Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale went looking for some of those answers.

John Dimsdale: Employers are hiring temporary workers, an early indication for some that more permanent jobs are on the horizon. And the number of underemployed — people in part-time jobs who want full time work — is dropping.

John Challenger at the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says that’s positive.

John Challenger: A sign, perhaps, that more people are finding work that fits their needs.

But it could also be a sign that people have been out of work so long, they’ve given up and are no longer in the job market.

Jerry O’Driscoll, a former Federal Reserve Board member now with the Cato Institute, does not see any long-term improvement in job creation.

Jerry O’Driscoll: It’s not sustainable yet. Maybe it’s the beginning of something, but the evidence isn’t there.

Others are much more confident the economy will continue to grow and generate more jobs. University of San Francisco business professor Jon Fisher has studied the history of economic rebounds. In today’s report, he sees evidence that long-term unemployment is headed in the right direction.

Jon Fisher: Relatively, the number is going down. I think that’s the important thing. I think it’s happening much earlier than consensus estimates anticipated, and I think it’s going to 8 percent by end of this year.

But with no assurances, Washington’s politicians are left wondering whether to jump in with more help.

Moody’s Analytics’ Mark Zandi offers some advice.

Mark Zandi: It would make good sense for policy makers to continue to provide significant support to the economy and add a little bit of juice — job tax credit, more help to provide credit to small businesses so that they can go out and hire.

He says it’s still a very tough job market, but the trend is slowly turning in the right direction.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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