Jobs Numbers Have Different Messages For Minorities

Friday's unemployment report for January showed weak gains in service sector jobs, such as those in restaurants and nursing homes. Manufacturing was strong, however, but will those gains will help minorities, who were especially hard-hit by the Great Recession?

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Interpreting economic data is never easy, and Friday's jobs report for January was especially confusing. The U.S. Labor Department says unemployment dropped to 9 percent. That's the lowest it's been since 2009. But at the same time, only 36,000 new jobs were added to the economy - that's a fraction of what's needed.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports that job numbers can interpreted in different ways by different economists, and they can feel different, depending on your race, ethnicity or gender.

SONARI GLINTON: If there was a bright spot in January's employment numbers, that spot would be manufacturing - 45,000 more jobs - the largest gain in manufacturing since 1998. The auto industry helped lead that job growth. Automakers began adding shifts and workers as car sales increased, which rippled through the industry.

Mr. GEORGE DAVIS (General Manager, Howard Cooper Import Center): My name is George Davis. I'm the general manager at Howard Cooper Import Center and we specialize in retail automotive; new and used, parts and service.

GLINTON: Davis increased the sales staff at his Michigan dealerships by 20 percent. He says for the first time in years, he's feeling confident.

Mr. DAVIS: As those sales numbers increased in November and December of last year, it gave us an indicator this year, 2011, will be much better. We'll need more people, there will be more customers coming in.

GLINTON: Davis says he hopes this is the beginning of a trend. But the auto sector is only a part of the brighter jobs outlook in manufacturing.

To understand what's happening in the labor market let's step back a second and deal with the economy in two parts. The first part:

Ms. HEIDI SCHIERHOLZ (Economist, Economic Policy Institute): Mining, manufacturing and construction.

GLINTON: Heidi Schierholz is with the Economic Policy Institute. She says that first part has more men. The second part, the service sector where 80 percent of the jobs are, has more women and that includes things like:

Ms. SCHIERHOLZ: Professional services, education, health services, hotels, restaurants, bars.

GLINTON: Last month, the service sector added only 32,000 jobs - down from 146,000 in December. Schierholz says that decline isn't good for women. On the other hand, when the recession started, people called it a mancession because of the job losses in manufacturing, construction and mining.

So, when last month's manufacturing numbers went up, Schierholz says that helped the men.

Ms. SCHIERHOLZ: Because men saw bigger hits, they're more likely to lose jobs. They're going to be more likely to gain jobs as the jobs start coming back.

GLINTON: Men and women were affected differently when the great recession started erasing jobs; so were minorities, especially African-American and Latino men.

Professor WILLIAM RODGERS (Public Policy, Rutgers University): Minority men, particularly African-American men and Latino men, bore the brunt of those losses in construction and manufacturing.

GLINTON: William Rodgers is a professor of public policy at Rutgers University. He says even as jobs start to pick up, it's likely many African-American and Latino men will see continued high rates of unemployment.

Mr. RODGERS: Because they are at lower rungs of the job ladder for reasons of having less education, less skills, less experience, and then they also continue to face discrimination.

GLINTON: Rodgers says for the unemployment rate to fall significantly for black and Latino men, the economy needs to be adding 250 to 300 thousand jobs a month, as it was doing in the late 1990s.

Mr. RODGERS: For those who were at the bottom of that job ladder, we really, really have to have that long sustained period of job creation in that 250 to 300 thousand range.

GLINTON: How long will it take for that kind of job growth? Rodgers says definitely in the next five years. Maybe not even in the next decade.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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