In observance of Labor Day: a progress report on jobs

The picture is slowly improving. But how well you're doing depends on your profession, where you live, and how old you are.

Paul Sakuma/AP
Unemployed Sergio Fuentes, right, gets some help from a state worker for a job at the State of California Employment Development Department in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday.

Labor Day 2009 is a great time to celebrate summer weather, family, and friends. As for the condition of the US labor market itself, perhaps the best that can be said is: It's no longer in a free fall. Some welcome progress is visible, but it remains a rough time for many workers in America.

Before you head out for beach trips and barbecues, here's a quick checkup on what's changing – from Las Vegas to Juneau, from wages to jobs:

Overall jobs trend

The number of jobs is still declining, but at a slower pace according to Labor Department numbers released Friday. The unemployment rate jumped to 9.7 percent, and many economists expect it will continue to climb for several months even as the economy starts to recover.

For those unemployed, Bernard Baumohl of the Economic Outlook Group identifies a glimmer of hope: The median number of weeks that unemployed Americans have been out of work fell to 15.4 in August from 15.7 in July. It was the second monthly drop in that indicator.

Jobs by geography

Unemployment has nearly doubled in the past year in many places hit hardest by the housing bust (Nevada has a 12.5 percent jobless rate) or the automotive slump (Michigan unemployment is 15 percent). The region most insulated from job losses has been the sparsely populated Great Plains (North Dakota joblessness is 4.2 percent). But Alaska's jobless rate is only a bit below the national average, so being a long way from Wall Street or Detroit hasn't necessarily provided shelter.

Jobs by demographic group

The recession has affected the young (15 percent unemployment for those age 20 to 24) much more than workers over 55 (who have a jobless rate of 6.8 percent). Men are faring worse than women, and African-Americans have seen bigger job losses than other racial groups.

Jobs by industry

Manufacturing and construction employment has been decimated in the past year, and even in the service sector, job losses have been steep. Healthcare, teaching, and government jobs have continued to grow. Again, Mr. Baumohl sees some positive trends emerging. The job losses in factories and construction sites are much lower than they were earlier this year.


Hourly wages edged up in August. Some economists attribute that gain partly to a hike in the minimum wage, to $7.25 an hour. Given the overall weak job market, it may be awhile before workers in general have much bargaining power.

Labor policies

Barack Obama campaigned for president with promises to increase the bargaining power of labor unions and to make broader changes in job-market regulation. Since the election, he and a Democratic Congress have passed the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, designed to reduce pay discrimination against women, and have moved to hire more investigators to pursue cases of wage theft.

Mr. Obama also supports an Employee Free Choice Act to bolster the prospects for labor unions, although a controversial "card check" provision (which could allow some workplaces to unionize without a secret ballot vote) appears unlikely to pass. Union advocates say that for years, employers have used unfair strong-arming to prevent unionization. Critics say that card check would allow labor organizers to do their own strong-arming and that more unionization would slow much-needed job growth.

Obama also is pursuing other steps – healthcare reforms and promotion of family-friendly work policies – that he says will improve the lives of working Americans.

The outlook

Chicago-based job expert John Challenger recently surveyed 150 human-resource executives to find the fields they see as most promising for college students to train for. The top fields on their list were computer sciences or information technology, engineering, and healthcare, in that order. Given the depth of the recession, he says, it's possible the job market will still be feeling the effect of the recession for the whole time that today's students are earning those degrees.


US job losses ease, a signal that recession may be over. Read about it here.


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