U.S. Economy Adds Most Jobs Since May

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The Labor Department said the economy added 151,000 jobs in October — the most job growth in five months. The national unemployment rate remained at 9.6 percent.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

As we've been reporting this morning, the economy added 151,000 jobs in October. President Obama noted today's figures from the Labor Department show job growth in the private sector for the last 10 months, but he cautioned.

President BARACK OBAMA: 'Cause the fact is, an encouraging jobs report doesn't make a difference if you're still one of the millions of people who are looking for work.

MONTAGNE: And despite the gains, the unemployment rate remains at 9.6 percent.

NPR's Tamara Keith joins us, live, to sort through the new numbers.

Good morning.

TAMARA KEITH: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So economists had been predicting job growth of only about 60,000. So, this number that did come out must be a real surprise?

KEITH: It is a surprise, and it proves, once again, that the consensus isn't always right. Most of this job growth came from the private sector, and that is a good thing. Private employers created 159,000 jobs in October and that was mostly in health care, retail, and temporary help services or temp workers. There were some losses on the government's side, but really, the banner here is that we have strong private sector job growth. Since the start of the year, 1.1 million jobs have been created by business owners and other employers. And we also got some revisions from the last two months, so August and September weren't as bad as was originally thought.

MONTAGNE: Well, Tamara, how can we see, though, more than 150,000 jobs created and the unemployment rate doesn't even seem to move at all?

KEITH: Well, 150,000 jobs created in a month is, basically, what economists say we need to keep up with population growth. So, at the moment, the economy is now producing enough jobs to tread water. Um, and with the revisions, we now have four months in a row of adding 100,000 private sector jobs which is definitely better than sinking. But one economist I spoke to said we really need to see 200 to 250,000 jobs created a month, and doing that consistently. Or, in other words, we need to kick it up a gear or two, or the unemployment could even rise.

MONTAGNE: Do these numbers give us sense, though, of where the labor market is headed?

KEITH: They do. One thing that economists look to, which is sort of buried in the report, is the length of the average work week. And in October, the average work week increased by six minutes, or .1 percent, to 33 34.3 hours a week. And that doesn't sound like much, but the needle is moving up. And employers will increase worker hours before they add new employees. So, seeing those hours increase even slightly is a good thing. Also, those temp employees that we mentioned, um, you know, employers tend to hire temporary workers before they will hire permanent employees. And the hope is that employers will convert those temporary jobs into permanent ones.

MONTAGNE: Tamara, thanks very much.

KEITH: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Tamara Keith.

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