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The jobs report as instruction manual for jobseekers

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The U.S. Labor Department issued a surprisingly good jobs report this morning. The headline numbers for November: 146,000 new jobs; the unemployment falling by 0.2 percent, to 7.7 percent. Both were better than economists expected. Also, contrary to widely held expectations, the U.S. job market seemed to shrug off both Superstorm Sandy’s disruptive impact, and ignore the so-called fiscal cliff.

Job growth in November continued in many of the sectors that have been growing consistently: health care, professional and business services, computers and information technology. There were also some bright spots — retail work was way up, and manufacturing more or less treaded water.

So, if you know someone who’s unemployed, or you have a kid about to enter the labor market, what can be gleaned from today’s jobs report? Advice item No. 1: Go to college.

“Workers with a B.A. or higher had an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent in November,” says labor economist Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute. “For workers with less than a high school degree, unemployment was 12.2 percent.”

Shierholz says health care, leisure — that’s bars, restaurants, hotels — have been hiring strongly throughout the recovery, though many of those jobs pay low wages.

Beth Herman of the HR firm Manpower Inc. says better-paying jobs are turning up in economic sectors that aren’t necessarily booming, but in which retiring workers need to be steadily replaced.

“Manufacturing is not leaving the United States, if anything, it’s coming back,” says Herman. “Also, there’s transportation and utilities. And let’s think about professional business services: there are not just mortgage companies out there; there are consulting firms, accounting firms, insurance firms.”

Manpower publishes an annual top-10 list of the hardest jobs to fill in America. The list includes several blue-collar careers: skilled trades, machinists and machine operators, mechanics, and drivers.

Herman says in today’s highly mobile economy, job-seekers have to be ready to move, especially to anyplace where there’s drilling or fracking for fossil fuels going on. “North and South Dakota: some of those states are screaming for talent right now,” she says. North Dakota’s unemployment rate stands at 3.1 percent (October 2012), South Dakota’s is 4.5 percent. Other energy-boom states with low unemployment rates include Oklahoma (5.3 percent) and Wyoming (5.2 percent).

Some sectors that usually lead the way out of recession remain mortally wounded, such as construction. Shierholz points out that the U.S. economy is still catching up from massive overbuilding and irresponsible lending during the mid-2000s housing bubble.

But cracks are opening in the broader housing economy — as home sales and prices begin rising again, and homeowners can finally escape from under their underwater mortgages and trade up.

Michael Gritton has seen this dynamic emerge in Louisville, Ky., where he is executive director of the regional workforce investment agency, KentuckianaWorks.

“As the housing market rebounds, lots of companies need moving and van-storage drivers,” says Gritton. “They pay an average of $40,000 a year or more.” The agency is ready to train 250 drivers right away, all costs covered, says Gritton, and employers are often happy to hire couples to drive cross-country together. 

If Gritton’s own 20-something niece were to corner him at the family Christmas party this year, what career would he recommend that she go into?

“Plastics,” he quips. Then, he gets serious: “One thing that niece should think hard about is information technology. If you have any skills for computers or mathematics, there are jobs now, and are going to be jobs — both in mid-sized cities like Louisville, and in big ones like New York and Chicago — for many years to come.”

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