Jobs picture gloomy. Where are bright spots for hiring?

The US created 54,000 jobs in May, the smallest gain in eight months. But in some sectors, hiring is booming.

Edis Jurcys/Business Wire/File
Portland, Ore., Mayor Sam Adams (left), representatives from Oregon Health & Science University, and executives from Knowledge Universe, one of the nation's largest private education and child-care providers, unveiled plans to bring new jobs to the city on Aug. 2, 2010. Private education services nationally added more than 6,000 jobs in May 2011, and employment in the sector stands at an all-time high.

America’s job machine not only sputtered last month, it sputtered and wheezed on almost all cylinders.

Manufacturing? Down 5,000 jobs. Retail sales? Down 8,500 jobs. Most other sectors of the economy saw a sharp slowdown in growth, which explains why the economy only gained 54,000 jobs in May, its weakest performance since September 2010, according to the Department of Labor’s unemployment report released Friday.

So where are the bright spots – and what does it say about the economy’s direction? Despite tight purse strings, businesses, consumers, and government are still willing to pay for more health care, private education services, and some technical sectors within business services.

Remarkably, the first two sectors have been almost untouched by the Great Recession. They have added jobs almost monthly since the recession began in December 2007. For example: Every sector of health care is at or near its all-time high.

So is employment in education services (which doesn’t count public education). While the nation’s public schools have lost 200,000 workers, primarily teachers, in the past two years, private education services have added 143,000 positions to reach a record 3.2 million workers last month. That’s 40 percent the size of the workforce in local public schools. A decade ago, it was 34 percent.

Another sector that’s been almost as robust is computer systems design and related services. After reaching record employment in August 2008, the sector lost 300,000 jobs over the next year. Then it began climbing relentlessly and now stands at a new all-time high of 1.5 million workers.

The same pattern has held for management and technical consulting services: a high in 2008, a small dip, and now a new record just above 1 million workers.

But these sectors are too small to make up for the losses and slowdowns that occurred in other parts of the economy in May, as catalogued by the Labor Department’s report.

“This report is surprising and a little disappointing,” says Scot Melland, president and CEO of Dice Holdings, which runs specialized career websites in the technology, financial services, and health-care industries. “This is very different from what we are seeing.”

The New York-based company released this week its survey of the hiring intentions of more than 1,000 hiring managers and recruiters. The survey showed that 51 percent of respondents expected to hire more professionals in the second half of the year than in past six months – a very healthy sign, at least for professionals and technical workers, Mr. Melland says.

The future doesn’t belong completely to health-care professionals, private educators, and computer geeks. In May, employment in waste management and remediation services hit a new record: 363,500 workers.

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