Wary Employers Keep Jobless Numbers High

A 10.2 percent unemployment rate is like a gut punch. It's just such a big number, a level of joblessness we haven't experienced here in the U.S. since the early '80s. This, even as the economy is actually growing again. But many employers just aren't ready to start hiring yet.

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The health care vote comes just as the unemployment rate hits 10.2 percent, a level of joblessness that the United States hasn't experienced since the early 1980s. The economy is actually growing, but as NPR's Tamara Keith reports, many employers just aren't ready to start hiring again.

TAMARA KEITH: October tallied another 190,000 people out of work and looking for jobs. But dig a little deeper and economist Bernard Baumohl, with the Economic Outlook Group, sees signs of hope. Productivity is up dramatically. In the manufacturing sector, workers are already putting in 40 hours a week. Overtime is rising.

Mr. BERNARD BAUMOHL (Economic Outlook Group): You can only ask your existing workforce to put in so many extra hours at work, to spend so much time in the office.

KEITH: Before you have to break down and start hiring again to meet demand. Steve Schulte wishes he was at that point.

Mr. STEVE SCHULTE (Owner, Porta-King Building Systems): Take it to the next level - I'm not seeing it yet.

KEITH: He owns a company called Porta-King Building Systems in Earth City, Missouri. No, not port-a-potties. They make custom order rooms that go into factories.

Mr. SCHULTE: It's a modular kit that we send out. That's all the wall systems, windows, doors, electrical components, HVAC. So it's an Erector set.

KEITH: Earlier this year, sales were so bad, Schulte laid off 30 percent of his workforce. He's brought a few people back as more orders have come in. He wishes he could hire more but he's afraid to.

Mr. SCHULTE: It's hand to mouth on a weekly basis. So if our order intake is at one level and it peaks up by 20 percent from one week and then the next week it drops off 30 percent, that's what we're dealing with.

KEITH: Schulte is worried about how health care and climate change legislation will affect his business. And then there's that sinking feeling that the economic recovery may not stick.

Tom Duesterberg is president of the Manufacturers Alliance.

Mr. TOM DUESTERBERG (President, Manufacturers Alliance): This recession was so severe, so broad, so long, that it's going to take us longer to come back than other recessions we've seen.

KEITH: One bright spot in yesterday's jobs report was temporary employment. Thirty-four thousand temp jobs were added last month.

Ms. JODI CHAVEZ (Ajilon Professional Staffing): It shows that people have stopped laying off and are starting to hire. They're just kind of hiring at the temporary sector, not quite the full-time sector.

KEITH: Jodi Chavez is a senior vice president with Ajilon Professional Staffing.

Ms. CHAVEZ: The temporary staff allows them to be flexible with their current workloads without making a full-time commitment and all the costs associated that come with that.

KEITH: Like health care and retirement and unemployment insurance and workers compensation. It's a real commitment. On Monday, Jennifer Lake starts a three-month accounting manager job in Torrance, California.

Ms. JENNIFER LAKE: I am thrilled beyond belief that I am going to have a paycheck coming. As a single parent, I'm on my own. So it's just a terrifying proposition to not be working.

KEITH: Still, Lake has mixed feelings and says the idea that she could be out of work again soon is unsettling. But her temp job and the thousands of others that were filled last month could signal permanent jobs are on the way. In past recessions, employers hired temps first and then a few months later started making permanent hires.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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