Jobless Rate Fell To 8.3 Percent In January

The U.S. unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent, its lowest rate in nearly three years, the Labor Department reported Friday. Nearly a quarter of a million jobs were added to payrolls in January — almost double what the market was expecting.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And with the fortunes of both candidates resting on the economy, it's certain both campaigns were watching closely some numbers that came out this morning. The Labor Department released its jobs report, and January, it turns out, was a very good month. The unemployment rate fell to its lowest in nearly three years, down to 8.3 percent. Joining us now is NPR's Yuki Noguchi. Good morning.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So take us through some of the notable numbers in this report.

NOGUCHI: Well, the one that stands out is that nearly a quarter of a million jobs were added to payrolls. That's almost double what the market was expecting, and that tells us that business growth is much more robust than what we thought. The other thing is that the previous two months were revised up by 60,000 jobs, and of course the unemployment rate fell by 2/10ths of a percent.

MONTAGNE: Well, what exactly does that tell us about the strength of the recovery?

NOGUCHI: Well, the single-biggest thing that it tells us is that the U.S. recovery is gaining steam. Hiring was broad-based. People were getting jobs in a variety of sectors, from retail to professional services to construction. This report allows people to believe that the jobs picture really is getting better. And that's what we've, of course, been hearing. Jobs, jobs, jobs is going to be the key to getting the economy moving again. So now, for it to make a big difference, it has to last. We need to see more months like this. And if the robust hiring we saw in January continues, it will help spur a lot of other things, like housing construction and consumer spending.

MONTAGNE: So the business sector is hiring. What about the government? Because it has shed lots of jobs in recent years.

NOGUCHI: Well, that was another factor contributing to a better-than-expected report in January. Government job loss was minimal.

MONTAGNE: What, then, about the long-term unemployed? We've heard a lot about them. Did this report show that people who've been out of work a long time are now finding jobs?

NOGUCHI: Well, those numbers didn't see a whole lot of improvement. There are still five-and-a-half million people who've been out of work for more than six months. Also, the number of people who are working part time but still looking for more work didn't change much. So, you know, not a lot of moving the needle, there.

MONTAGNE: And there's something else people thing of as discouraged workers, people waiting for the market to improve. Are there any signs that they're out there looking for work again?

NOGUCHI: Not quite yet. The Labor Department calls them the marginally attached workers. Those are people who want work, but stopped looking for work because, as you say, they're discouraged. They're technically not unemployed, because to be considered unemployed, you have to be looking for work. And that number hasn't changed much in the past year, either. So the U.S. labor force has been shrinking in the past few years. Normally, you'd expect the population working or looking for work to increase, simply because the population grows. So you may, in coming months, see some fluctuations in the unemployment rate because, as the economy improves and people start looking for work again, those people will once again be considered unemployed. And you could see the rate go up. But you didn't see that happen in January.

MONTAGNE: And then what about the long-term outlook for employment? Do these reports shed any light on that?

NOGUCHI: Well, even with good reports like this one from January, high unemployment will be us for a while. So, just a little numbers perspective, here, let's say the hiring stays at this level. With nearly 13 million people unemployed, it would take more than four years for all of those people to find jobs. And that's also not taking into account, you know, increases in working populations. So we're - this will be with us for a while.

MONTAGNE: And the number has to get bigger to make it go faster.

NOGUCHI: Yes, correct.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much, Yuki.

NOGUCHI: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's business correspondent, Yuki Noguchi.

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