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Unemployment Tumbles Amid Slow Jobs Growth
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Unemployment Tumbles Amid Slow Jobs Growth

Economy

Unemployment Tumbles Amid Slow Jobs Growth

Unemployment Tumbles Amid Slow Jobs Growth
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The unemployment rate tumbled to 9 percent in January, but job growth remains weak. NPR's Chris Arnold looks at the latest data, and talks to a company that has been adding jobs — a package delivery service, not an easy business to be in during February in Boston.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The unemployment rate in the U.S. has fallen to 9 percent. That's the word today from the Labor Department. It's the second month in a row that the unemployment rate has tumbled - which might sound encouraging but at the same time, job growth in January was anemic.

Here's NPR's Chris Arnold to explain the mixed signals.

CHRIS ARNOLD: The U.S. has lost more than 8 million jobs since 2007, and the Labor Department says last month, it gained only 36,000 of those jobs back. So that's really nothing. But here's what's surprising and confusing. The unemployment rate is falling sharply anyway.

Dr. LISA LYNCH (Dean, Brandeis University): Well, it's enough to make anyone's head spin. Is it good news; is it bad news in today's report?

ARNOLD: Lisa Lynch is a dean at Brandeis University, and a former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor.

Dr. LYNCH: Certainly, the drop in the unemployment rate down to 9 percent is very good news.

ARNOLD: Lynch thinks that that trend is real. And as far as the unexpectedly small new jobs number...

Dr. LYNCH: That reflected, in part, some fluky issues in the employment numbers when the data were collected. They were collected in a week in January where we had a lot of severe weather across the country.

ARNOLD: There was ice in the South, floods in the West, snowstorms seemingly everywhere else. So Lynch says when you look at the industries where people work indoors, the report actually looks pretty good. Take manufacturing - of everything from computers to cars, to different kinds of metals.

Dr. LYNCH: We saw over 60,000 jobs added in the economy, and that's terrific. These are well-paying jobs, more skilled jobs, and that's a sign of hope going forward.

ARNOLD: But when you look at people who work outdoors - doing construction or shipping and delivering packages - fewer people were able to work. And Lynch says that probably skewed the numbers. For example, you have to be really dedicated to want to work as a bike messenger in a blizzard.

So those just look like - kind of regular, baldish city tires. I mean, can you stay up in the snow on those?

Mr. GRAHAM CONWAY(ph) (Bike Messenger, Breakaway Courier Systems): They sort of cut through all the snow and go right down to the road surface.

ARNOLD: On the street in Boston, bike messenger Graham Conway is riding slowly down the sidewalk to talk to me. Graham is 23. He's wearing wet sneakers with wool socks, and he's been making deliveries and dodging obstacles that could send him flying off his bike into traffic.

Mr. CONWAY: Inattentive cab drivers and like, wet manhole covers in the road.

Mr. TOM CROMWELL (Co-owner, Breakaway Courier Systems): Yeah. Well, you know the snow is coming in on Saturday night.

ARNOLD: Inside the offices of Breakaway Courier in downtown Boston, Tom Cromwell is one of the owners. He's calling orders over to his dispatchers.

Mr. CROMWELL: His name?

Unidentified Man: Yo.

Mr. CROMWELL: That's Richie(ph). He just has a pickup at their office in Andover, going to Lynn.

ARNOLD: The delivery business is actually an interesting one to look at because you can see firsthand the different ways that the economy is slowly picking up steam again. Cromwell says, for example, restaurants are doing more business, so his drivers pick up more crates of fresh fish at the airport.

Mr. CROMWELL: Logan Airport a couple times a week when they catch it; it's day-boat fish, and from Florida. And it seems like the legal and the financial industries are a lot busier now.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. CROMWELL: I got to just grab this call.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. CROMWELL: Johnny. You just dropped off the nebulizer. That's good.

ARNOLD: The company has also been delivering medical gear to asthma patients at their homes. That's turned into a pretty steady source of work. And back before this past month with all the crazy weather, the pickup in business led Cromwell here to hire on more people.

Mr. CROMWELL: You know, I would think we've picked up five or six full-time couriers.

ARNOLD: But it's going to take a lot more companies all over the country hiring a lot more people to keep bringing down the unemployment rate.

At 9 percent, it hasn't been that high for so long since 1948, when the data started being collected.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

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