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Despite Positive Signs, Jobs Still Hard To Find

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Despite Positive Signs, Jobs Still Hard To Find

Economy

Despite Positive Signs, Jobs Still Hard To Find

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

NPR's business news starts with the unemployment rate a little bit lower.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: The government's latest jobs report shows the economy added 103,000 jobs in December. That is fewer than economists had predicted, and a fraction of the number of jobs the economy would need month by month to seriously get back to full health. But at least the economy is adding jobs, not losing them, and the unemployment rate dropped a little bit. It's now 9.4 percent.

NPR's Brett Neely has this report on where the new jobs are coming from.

BRETT NEELY: The jobs are out there. But sometimes, as Jessica Cooper found out, it takes six months and lowered expectations to find them. She's an experienced bookkeeper in the construction industry - no jobs there for awhile. Throughout her job search, she kept seeing lots of jobs in the health care industry - which kept adding positions through the recession.

Ms. JESSICA COOPER (Bookkeeper): And I felt like every time I was doing a job search, it was for nurses and physician assistants and things like that, and I don't have any training in that sort of a thing.

NEELY: So Cooper wound up with a part-time job selling clothes at The Gap. It pays $12 less an hour than her old job.

Ms. COOPER: It was kind of disappointing, but at the same time, I mean, I knew that was the way it was going to be. I just needed a job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COOPER: So I went for it.

NEELY: Retailers have continued to hire, even as the holiday shopping season ends, thanks to growing consumer spending. This week, department store chain Macy's and discounter Dollar General announced plans to hire thousands of new workers across the country.

Macy's spokesman Jim Sluzewski says the chain will add 3,500 positions over the next two years to beef up its online operations. Many of the jobs will be relatively low-paying jobs packing boxes for shipment. But Sluzewski says the company is hiring plenty of other workers, too.

Mr. JIM SLUZEWSKI (Spokesman, Macy's): Merchants - which are buyers and planners - to programmers, to software engineers.

NEELY: That sounds good, but Macy's has shed around 20,000 jobs over the past two years. So this latest round of hiring amounts to a small fraction of the jobs lost during the recession.

While many large companies are once again profitable, labor economist Gary Burtless at the Brookings Institution says they're cautious about spending the big cushions of cash they've built up.

Mr. GARY BURTLESS (Labor Economist, Brookings Institution): Businesses have to be confident that the demand for the good or product that they sell is going to be reliably bigger in the future than it is right now.

NEELY: Burtless says companies have become more efficient and have learned to do the same amount of work with fewer employees. And he adds that many companies have been hiring temporary workers instead of permanent ones, just in case the economy weakens again.

A spokesman for Adecco - a large temporary staffing firm - told me that the company has seen a significant increase in the number of temp jobs being offered in the past few months.

That rings true for Bill Cave in Fort Mill, South Carolina. He's been unemployed for two years and finally starts a new job on Monday.

Mr. BILL CAVE: The job is a temporary position. It's for a staffing company, doing research on the clients that they have.

NEELY: Some jobseekers are getting lucky enough to find permanent work. Boeing hired about 3,000 new workers in its commercial airplane business last year to increase production. And it plans to hire more workers this year, which will have a knock-on effect for Boeing's 22,000 suppliers in all 50 states.

Most of those jobs are thanks to orders from overseas, says Boeing spokesman Tim Neale.

Mr. TIM NEALE (Spokesman, Boeing): Particularly in Asia and the Middle East, but also in places like Africa and Latin America, where passenger traffic is on the rise.

NEELY: But even as Boeing's airliner business improves, Neale says the company's large Defense unit is shedding jobs because of Pentagon budget cuts. State and local governments are also cutting jobs, so private sector employers will have to do a lot of hiring if the unemployment rate is to come down.

Brett Neely, NPR News, Washington.

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