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February jobs report: 36,000 jobs lost, but mostly a holding pattern

The February jobs report showed the unemployment rate steady at 9.7 percent and 36,000 jobs lost. Hiring may get a boost in March.

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Because the job losses were fairly minor, some economists viewed the report as positive.

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“Things that potentially could have gone wrong did not go wrong,” says Mr. Naroff.

Men, minorities feel the pinch the most

However, the overall picture for jobs is not positive. Some 14.9 million people were unemployed last month, according to the BLS. The unemployment rate for adult men was 10 percent, compared with 8 percent for adult women. However, the jobs picture was especially bleak for minorities, with the jobless rate at 15.8 percent for blacks and 12.4 percent for Hispanics, versus 8.8 percent for whites. The worst job picture is for teenagers, whose unemployment rate is 25 percent.

Moreover, the number of long-term unemployed – those out of work for more than six months – was 6.1 million. Almost 40 percent of the unemployed are in this category.

Economists still expect the unemployment rate to rise this year. According to the BLS numbers, the workforce shrank by 0.5 percent compared with a year ago.

“The last time we had a decline of this consistency and magnitude was the Korean War,” says Zandi.

As businesses start to hire, however, this trend will change.

Last month, some 2.5 million people were considered by the BLS to be “marginally attached” to the workforce – 476,000 more than in January. These are workers who have not looked for work for the past 12 months and are deemed to be no longer in the labor force. Many are too discouraged to hit the pavement or reply to job postings.

Construction sector in a pit

The jobs picture is especially bleak for the construction industry, which has lost 1.9 million jobs since December 2007. In February, employment dropped by 64,000, roughly the same amount the beleaguered industry has been shedding for each of the past six months. Most of the job losses were in commercial construction, which is contracting as large developers struggle to pay their loans.

One indicator that the industry won’t turn around soon: Jobs for architectural services fell 0.2 percent in February and dropped 6.8 percent for engineering services. These job areas are indicators of future construction, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

Some construction workers may have found jobs shoveling snow. Some contractors in the Washington, D.C., area went door-to-door offering to remove the snow from roofs. Temp jobs added 48,000 positions last month.

“If a business had to hire someone to shovel the sidewalks in front of their stores, they probably hired a company that hired a temp worker,” says Naroff.
January had seen a hiring surge in the retail trades, partially the result of seasonal adjustments. (Because fewer people were hired in December, fewer were fired in January.) But retail hiring was flat in February, reflecting lackluster consumer spending.

The monthly jobs report is a closely watched barometer for the health of the economy.

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