- The Washington Times - Friday, February 5, 2010

UPDATED:

The nation’s unemployment rate fell out of the double-digit range last month and landed at 9.7 percent as businesses laid off far fewer workers than they did throughout most of last year, the Labor Department reported Friday morning.

Only 22,000 jobs were lost during the month — down from 150,000 in December and nearly 800,000 a year ago, when the worst of the job bloodbath occurred.

“These are good omens,” said Sung Won Sohn, economics professor at California State University Channel Islands, noting several “telltale signs” in the report that the job outlook is brightening.

“As the economy continues to improve, employers will have more courage to increase hiring,” he said.

The news of improving employment should be an elixir to troubled stock markets, which plunged on Thursday partly on fears that Friday’s jobs would report would reveal unexpectedly big job losses.

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Despite the overall improvement in the labor market in recent months, revisions by the department showed that last year the economy lost far more jobs than originally reported. By December, nearly 1.4 million more jobs had been eliminated than previously estimated. The department’s revisions are based on more complete information about the unemployed derived from state unemployment records.

The brightening of the jobs picture last month was particularly noticeable in manufacturing, which managed to eke out a gain of 11,000 jobs as auto companies ratcheted up production after the worst year in their history during 2009. Manufacturing was one of the hardest hit sectors during the recession, and had lost millions of jobs over the last two years.

Another bright spot was a 42,000 gain in retail employment — another area which had seen steep job losses as consumer curbed shopping during the recession. Food, clothing and general merchandise retailers recorded most of the gains.

The biggest job gain came in temporary employment, which added 52,000 jobs. Economists consider increased temporary employment a harbinger of permanent job gains, because employers often add temporary staff before deciding to hire full-time workers. A slight uptick in the average work week to 33.9 hours also boosted prospects for increased incomes and hiring in the future.

Health care jobs continued to grow, and the federal government added 33,000 jobs, including 9,000 temporary positions for people conducting the 2010 census. But state and local governments laid off 41,000 workers.

Other areas continued to see deep job losses. Construction — the biggest victim of the housing-led recession — continued to shed jobs, with 75,000 layoffs in January mostly concentrated in the commercial construction sector.

The drop in unemployment occurred mainly among women and white workers, whose unemployment rates fell to 7.9 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively. Jobless rates remained more elevated for blacks, Hispanics, teenagers, veterans and the disabled, the department said.

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