In a sign that employers are beginning to dip their toes into the hiring waters, a rising number of temp jobs helped shrink November's total job losses to 11,000, a figure small enough for officials to consider employment numbers essentially unchanged for the month. The unemployment rate fell by 0.2 percentage point to 10 percent. The data were far better than economists' forecasts of 125,000 jobs lost and an unchanged unemployment rate.
Still, there are plenty of data below the surface headline numbers that flesh out a fuller picture of the job market's progress. Here are five things to know about the jobs report:
The job market was better than you thought: While November's unexpectedly improved data make for welcome news to a layoff-weary public, the Labor Department dramatically revised the job losses for September and October to show a rosier job picture for those earlier months, as well. Employers cut just 111,000 jobs in October, rather than the 190,000 originally reported, and 139,000 jobs in September, rather than the 219,000 first reported.
There were many bright spots in November: The average number of hours worked each week has fallen throughout much of the recession, as employers slashed their workers' time on the job to cut costs. But last month, the average workweek increased by 0.2 hour to 33.2 hours, while the manufacturing workweek increased 0.3 hour to hit 40.4 hours, and factory overtime also rose 0.1 hour.
Professional and business services sector employers added 86,000 jobs last month, most of them in temporary help services. Temp jobs are a leading indicator of the labor market, as employers often ease their way into hiring by bringing in temp workers, before building the confidence to add permanent employees.
Even construction industry job losses narrowed significantly in November, to 27,000, after averaging 117,000 a month in the six months ending in April, and 63,000 a month during the six-month period ending in October.
Long-term unemployment continues to spread: The ranks of the long-term unemployed grew again last month, as 293,000 unemployed workers saw their unemployment spells push past the six-month mark. Now, nearly 6 million workers have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more. As job losses narrow but employers hesitate to hire, average unemployment durations lengthen. Nearly 4 in 10 unemployed workers are among the long-term unemployed.
The report doesn't match up with other jobs data: Today's report will no doubt be a head scratcher for economists as they try to understand how other labor market data could be so divergent. Earlier in the week, ADP reported private payroll losses of 169,000 for November. The Monster Employment Index, which measures online job demand, actually dipped slightly from October's number. "This was a shocking report because the reported payroll data bear little resemblance to any other evidence concerning the labor market, including the ADP survey, which is based on hard data from a much wider sample of payrolls than is the government's survey," says Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at research firm MFR.
The turnaround is coming: In an effort to gain new insights into how to stem the tide of job losses—or at least appear to be interested in gaining new insights—the White House held a jobs summit yesterday afternoon at which 130 business leaders exchanged ideas about what could put Americans back to work. Although the White House is loath to call any new efforts "stimulus," the administration may consider hiring tax credits, eased access to credit for small businesses, and weatherization incentives.
Today's report, however, gives stimulus supporters a kind of premium fuel for their defense of the $780 billion package. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was quick to note the legislation's hand in the improved data. "While there has been a lot of rhetoric about the Recovery Act, when you look at today's report and other recent favorable economic trends, it is hard to argue that the Recovery Act is not working," Solis says.
No matter the precise cause for improvement, some economists find solid, rather than specious, good news in the November data. "Sorting through the volatility of recent months, there is pretty clear evidence of underlying progress toward labor market recovery," David Greenlaw and Ted Wieseman of Morgan Stanley Research said in a morning note. "The same sort of trend is evident in the weekly jobless claims data. We continue to look for payroll changes to turn positive in early 2010. "