Jobless Numbers Loom Even As Economy Makes Gains

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When the Labor Department releases monthly unemployment numbers Friday, investors will be hoping for signs of new job growth. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt says that analysts will be watching the news closely, wary after September's rise in unemployment.

There are fears that the nation's unemployment rate could reach 10 percent. But that number isn't comprehensive.

"That includes only people who are actively looking for work," Leonhardt tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

The U.S. jobless rate omits two large groups: those who are out of work but didn't seek a job in the weeks before the sample; and workers who have found part-time work when they would like to be employed full-time.

Using those numbers, Leonhardt puts the nation's level of "underemployment" at 16 percent — or around 1 out of every 6 American workers. And in California, the underemployment rate rises to 20 percent, Leonhardt says.

Many people are watching the October jobs report carefully, as it may reveal whether September's dip was an anomaly — or a sign of continued economic troubles.

As for recent news that the U.S. economy is making gains, Leonhardt says there are reasons to be optimistic — but that those gains are not likely to quickly translate into jobs.

Leonhardt does see potential bright spots in the economy, including growth in exports — thanks in part to talks with China that may improve America's trade imbalance.

But that doesn't mean Leonhardt thinks America should focus on being a net exporter, as it was in the 1970s.

"I think it's important to remember that countries that have a much greater share of their economy based on exports than we do are poorer than we are," Leonhardt said.

The idea, then, is to focus on exporting both goods and services.

"We also want to make sure that we're educating our workforce, so they can be making the kind of goods that other countries want."

A return to the 1970s isn't what America needs, Leonhardt says.

"I think we should want an economy where we're exporting higher-value goods than Germany is today — or that we were in the 1970s."

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