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Signs of uncertainty in temp numbers

Mitchell Hartman Mar 5, 2010

Signs of uncertainty in temp numbers

Mitchell Hartman Mar 5, 2010


KAI RYSSDAL: The good people at the Bureau of Labor Statistics delivered their February employment report today. Forget everything you’ve heard the past week or so about last months snowstorms and what they might have done to the numbers — ’cause we just don’t know. The actual wording from the Department of Labor went like this: “It is not possible to quantify precisely,” they said, “the net impact of the winter storms on these measures.” Or, we just don’t know.

36,000 were lost last month, about a third of the early, weather-induced expectations. The unemployment rate held steady at 9.7 percent. Economists say the recovery may finally be strong enough to turn the jobs corner from losses to gains. And some industries are already there; manufacturing and health care showed net increases last month. And the number of temporary workers in this economy has now risen five months running. And that usually means permanent hiring isn’t far behind. Usually.

We asked Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman to test the premise.

Mitchell Hartman: Employers started adding temporary workers way back in October. A quarter-million Americans have now been put back to work as temps, says Bernard Baumohl of the Economic Outlook Group.

Bernard Baumohl: Once temporary employment starts to pick up, generally three to six months later, we will see companies begin to hire permanent workers.

But it’s been five months — and companies are still firing more people than they’re hiring. What gives?

Baumohl: There is a lot of uncertainty that’s keeping employers, perhaps longer than usual, from hiring permanent workers.

Baumohl is confident companies will start hiring in substantial numbers over the next few months. Economist Nigel Gault at IHS Global Insight isn’t so sure. He thinks companies may be too skittish about the economy to commit.

Nigel Gault: They’re balancing the flexibility they get from temporary help, they’re not adding permanent payroll costs. But it may well be that reliance on temporary help just will remain larger than in the past.

Rebecca Jones: I think the workplace will change after this, personally.

Rebecca Jones is one of those unemployed Americans who finally landed a temp job recently, as a copywriter for a drug company in North Carolina.

Jones: You cost them less, and maybe you go in not expecting to be able to keep coming back or something. You never completely unpack your desk.

Jones is still looking for a permanent job with benefits. But in this economy, she isn’t hopeful she’ll find one.

I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

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