February Jobs Report Shows Optimism

There are new signs of a rebound in the job market. The nation's unemployment rate has fallen below 9 percent for the first time in nearly two years. The economy generated 192,000 jobs.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Economists weren't expecting it, but they'll take it. At long last, the unemployment rate is below 9 percent, just by a hair, 8.9. The White House is ready to shout it from the mountaintops. President Obama is highlighting the new numbers.

President BARACK OBAMA: This morning we learned that the unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in nearly two years.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: Our economy added another 222,000 jobs in the private sector and that's the 12th straight month of private sector job growth.

BLOCK: Those gains were offset a bit by job losses in state and local governments, as NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

(Soundbite of factory)

Mr. STEVE SCHULTE (President, Porta-King Building Systems): Morning.

TAMARA KEITH: When Steve Schulte walks the floor of his company's manufacturing facility in Montgomery City, Missouri, he has a lot of reasons to smile.

Mr. SCHULTE: You'll see a wide variety of things that we build here.

(Soundbite of saw)

KEITH: Schulte is the CEO of Porta-King Building Systems they make customized modular rooms that go into factories. So when manufacturers are doing well, Porta-King is doing well. And orders are rolling in, including one from an automaker that has Schulte downright giddy.

Mr. SCHULTE: Let me put it like this - it's the single largest project that we've ever had in the history of our company.

KEITH: In February alone, Schulte was able to add 12 employees, a dramatic reversal from a couple of years ago when he was forced to lay people off and cut shifts to the bare bones.

Mr. SCHULTE: It feels pretty good compared to the last three years. It was a real struggle to survive.

KEITH: Employment in manufacturing as a whole rose by 33,000 in February. Lisa Lynch, dean of the Heller School of Social Policy at Brandeis University says the sector has added nearly 200,000 jobs since the end of 2009.

Ms. LISA LYNCH (Dean, Heller School of Social Policy, Brandeis University): And that's fabulous because these are jobs that on average have higher wages, good benefits and there's a lot of secondary employment that falls out from gains in the manufacturing sectors.

KEITH: Other sectors that are hiring include health care and construction. Dennis Tarnay is CFO of Lake Erie Electric, an electrical contractor in Cleveland. He hired in February, too.

Mr. DENNIS TARNAY (CFO, Lake Erie Electric): I'm going to say 20 people.

KEITH: All electricians. Tarnay says Lake Erie Electric does work for clients in the health care industry, education and some automotive. He's hiring because there's work to be done.

Mr. TARNAY: We've been fortunate that we have some very good people and they like our work and we continue to bid and we do it the right way.

KEITH: Just a month ago, job creation numbers in the monthly report came in much worse than expected. But it now appears that may have been the result of bad weather, not a momentum shift in the labor market.

Bill Rodgers is an economist at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers. He says seeing unemployment drop below 9 percent is a real psychological boost.

Mr. BILL RODGERS (Economist, Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers): I think the key here is acceleration. The economy looks like it may be, you know, shifting from first to second gear or either the second to the third gear, depends on your perspective.

KEITH: The February jobs report was so encouraging, Austan Goolsbee, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, says he got a fist bump from President Obama.

Mr. AUSTAN GOOLSBEE (Chair, Council of Economic Advisors): The president was, I think, satisfied that the policies that he's been enacting are setting the stage for the private sector to finally stand up and start getting the engine really going.

KEITH: But employers are going to have to keep the engine revving for months, actually, years to come for the unemployment rate to return to where it was before the start of the recession.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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