Jobless Rate Down, But Hiring Remains On Hold

Companies such as FedEx are considered economic bellwethers. i i

Companies such as FedEx are considered economic bellwethers. FedEx cut 1,000 people, instituted a hiring freeze and reduced work hours earlier this year. Chuck Burton/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Chuck Burton/AP
Companies such as FedEx are considered economic bellwethers.

Companies such as FedEx are considered economic bellwethers. FedEx cut 1,000 people, instituted a hiring freeze and reduced work hours earlier this year.

Chuck Burton/AP

The nation's jobless rate delivered a surprise Friday, falling in July to 9.4 percent, the first dip since April of last year.

Although the markets cheered the news because everyone expected the rate to rise, the fact remains the economy is still losing jobs: July marked the 19th month in a row of losses.

When employers will start hiring again is still hard to pin down.

Losing fewer jobs is a victory in the same sense that a sick patient sitting up in bed might be progress. It's not the same as full recovery.

Not The End

"This is a very good jobs report, given where we are in the cycle, but we're still losing 250,000 jobs," says Tig Gilliam, chief executive of Adecco, a staffing agency. "The other thing we need to remember is that we need to add 100,000 jobs a month in the U.S. economy just to stay steady."

Gilliam says the Labor Department report doesn't radically change his outlook. For one thing, many workers have been sitting out the recession and aren't counted among the unemployed. So, when they resume looking for jobs, the unemployment rate could actually worsen.

Secondly, he says, many workers have been furloughed or have had to go to part time, which means many businesses might not have to start hiring for some time, even after demand improves.

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The report also showed that the number of long-term unemployed — those jobless for 27 weeks or more — rose by 584,000 over the month to 5 million, the highest level on record.

That is why, in so many respects, it is hard to plan for the future.

Hiring On Hold

One microcosmic example of this might be the shipping industry, which has long been considered a bellwether for the economy.

"We think we have one of the best seats in the house in terms of observing the economy and seeing what is happening and seeing what will happen," FedEx spokesman Jess Bunn says.

Bunn says the company had to lay off 1,000 people, institute a hiring freeze and reduce employees' work hours earlier this year. FedEx executives have since declared the worst of the recession over, but Bunn says that doesn't mean they know when they might start hiring again.

"It's very hard to say, because there's still a lot of volatility in the global economy," Bunn says. "That makes our crystal ball a little cloudy."

Bunn says the first thing the company is likely to do is reinstate lost work hours.

It's a similar story with UPS, which pared back its work force by 15,000 people in the past year. "Just in the second quarter alone, we were delivering 700,000 fewer packages every day," UPS spokesman Norman Black says.

UPS can reassign idle drivers to sort packages when volume falls, which gives the company some flexibility. So far, Black says, UPS doesn't foresee when it will hire again.

Business Stagnant

With fewer boxes to ship, there is less demand for the boxes themselves, trickling down to Ron Cowell's level. Cowell owns a seven-person operation called T-Roc Equipment in Kansas City, Kan., which makes the machines that manufacture custom-size boxes, a niche that has also been hurt by the recession.

"It has sort of stagnated my business," Cowell says. "We're staying on a steady, even keel right now, but we were growing every year."

Cowell's machines cost between $50,000 and $100,000, but he says few customers can get the credit to finance a purchase. So, T-Roc has turned to refurbishing older machines just to keep everyone busy. He has also cut his own salary so he wouldn't have to lay off any employees.

"I plan on hiring as soon as I get the orders. But [if] the orders don't come, I can't hire," he says. "It may happen next week; it may happen in six months. It just depends on, as you're looking at the overall economy, where is it going?"

Despite Friday's optimistic jobs report, no one's confident enough to bet the payroll.

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