Call it a wintry mix: While there isn't much to celebrate in the Labor Department's news that February brought yet another month of job losses, the report does not leave exasperated job seekers without hope. Employers cut 36,000 jobs in February, a good deal less than economists were expecting. The unemployment rate, measured by a separate household survey, remained at January's unexpectedly low 9.7 percent. And the negative impact of the extensive winter storms may have obscured an otherwise very promising month for employment.
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Here are five things to know about February's job market:
More than 40 percent of the unemployed are "long term." Last month, 6.1 million of the nation's workers had been out of work for six months or more. That means more than 4 in 10 unemployed Americans are considered to be among the "long-term" unemployed. These figures edged down from January, but they remain a troubling sign for the fledgling recovery. The long-term unemployed drive the need for continued extensions of unemployment benefits, and at the same time, these workers lose out on critical skills development while they are out of work. The Senate on Tuesday approved a 30-day extension of benefits, but job creation continues to lag the recovery and "workers will be struggling with long-term joblessness long after those 30 days are up. " says Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project.
No one knows the true effect of the winter weather. Lashed by winter storms that brought snow counted in feet rather than inches, states up and down the East Coast saw retail stores temporarily shuttered and construction and roadwork halted. But the toll that took on last month's employment report will be nearly impossible to measure, the Labor Department says. Indeed, "while some persons may have been off payrolls during the survey reference period, some industries, such as those dealing with cleanup and repair activities, may have added workers," the government reports.
The construction industry lost 64,000 jobs last month, bringing total job losses in that sector to 1.9 million since the start of the recession. This is a sector that would be particularly vulnerable to unusually stormy weather, and last month's loss was in line with the average monthly losses of the past six months or so. Does that mean that without storms, construction might have had a stellar month? It's hard to say. Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR, says the government's report suggests that employment was "less affected by bad weather in the survey week than feared." But Morgan Stanley economists Ted Wieseman and David Greenlaw suspect the report could have been a particularly promising one: "Absent special factors related to the census and the weather, we believe February payrolls would have risen by more than 100,000."
The underemployment rate ticked higher. After January's promising dip in the number of workers in part-time jobs who want full-time work, that worker group grew again in February from 8.3 million to 8.8 million. This is important because these individuals are essentially considered "under-employed," and the Labor Department takes a monthly measure of the underemployed; the unemployed; those workers who are out of work but didn't search for a job in the past month because they had another obligation or conflict (such as school); or because they had given up hope. That total measure had fallen in January to 16.5 percent, from 17.3 in December, but it rose to 16.8 percent in February. Some experts find this figure a more accurate measure of the health of the job market.
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Information employment took a hit in February. The information industry lost 18,000 jobs last month. Jobs were lost in the (non-Internet) publishing industry and the motion picture and sound recording industries. Since the start of the recession, the information industry has lost nearly 300,000 jobs. In the meantime, temporary help services continues to grow: 48,000 jobs were added last month bringing the total since September to 284,000. Economists often look to temp services as a job market indicator, as employers may add temp jobs to meet rising demand before they commit to permanent hires. Next month may bring good news. "The February jobs report suggests that the economy is on the verge of creating jobs, and that it will break through to sustained job creation beginning in March," says Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight.