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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The government's Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed some numbers today that sound remarkable. More than 4.2 million people were hired in January. But wait a second. Just last week, we made a big deal out of a report that 236,000 jobs were added in February. So, 4.2 million in January and then dropping to 236,000 in February?

You may have already guessed, we're comparing apples and oranges here. And we should add one more number to that mix. The government also revealed today that 4.1 million people left their jobs in January - some voluntary, some not.

Adam Davidson, with NPR's Planet Money team, joins us now to explain these numbers and a crucial measurement of the economy that gets lost in regular jobs reporting.

And, Adam, are you ready to do this, 'cause that was a blizzard of numbers just then.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: What's going on here?

ADAM DAVIDSON, BYLINE: You know, this gives you a sense of what it's like to be an economics journalist. I mean, the truth is the government has all these different units, most of them within the Bureau of Labor Statistics that conduct very different surveys. So that the first Friday, usually its first Friday of the month, the BLS reveals that headline number where we say, you know, 236,000 jobs were added to the economy.

But that number, I feel, can be a bit misleading. It's a net number but it sort of gives the impression that the labor market is this stable thing where there's lots and lots of jobs. And in good months there's a few more jobs. And bad months there's a few worse jobs. So I find that waiting after that Friday, till the following Tuesday, when they reveal my favorite name of a survey, the JOLTS Report, the Job Openings and Labor Turnovers Survey Report, provides a richer picture of what's happening in the economy.

CORNISH: So other than the cool name, how is this report really different from the jobs number that we reported on Friday?

DAVIDSON: Well, what the JOLTS does is it doesn't give you just the net number. It shows you the dynamism, some would say the total chaos of the U.S. labor market - there are jobs opening, people getting hired, people getting fired all the time. You mentioned that the report today said 4.2 million people started new jobs in January, 4.1 million people left their jobs, that averages out to 1.6 people getting a job and 1.6 people leaving a job every second of the month.

CORNISH: So why is that so important? I mean, it seems like we're bringing in a lot of math here, when the thing people care about is the net result - whether there were more jobs actually added.

DAVIDSON: Well, was really helpful about the JOLTS Report, as well as some of the other were detailed reports, is it gives you a sense what's the overall story in this confusing economy. So, let me give you some examples of things that I learned this morning, that I find quite interesting.

I learned that there were more jobs added in the construction sector than were lost. So that's really interesting because construction obviously bore the brunt of the recession. But I also saw today that there were more jobs lost in manufacturing than were added. That's upsetting because a lot of people see manufacturing as the best path to sort of a middle-class life for people who don't have a college degree.

Something else I saw, the JOLTS Report does regional analysis. So I saw that there were 200,000 more jobs added in the South than were lost in the South. So good news for the South. But where I live, in the Northeast, there were tens of thousands more jobs lost than were added.

CORNISH: And so, how are these numbers used?

DAVIDSON: Well, this richer view really helps policymakers figure out what kind of policies we need because they help us diagnose what's wrong with our economy. So, for example, very recently, Janet Yellen, who's the number two person at the Federal Reserve, she says she pays a lot of attention to one particular line in the JOLTS Report. It's called the Quits Report. It tells you how many people quit their job in the last month.

Because she said that when someone quits a job, it's a sign that they really feel confident, they feel that they have a good shot at having another job down the line. And sure enough, this month we saw that construction - quitting, people willing to quit their construction job, it almost doubled to nearly 2.2 percent. That is the biggest jump we've seen in a long time. And that might be a sign that people in the construction field are feeling really confident.

But in government jobs and manufacturing jobs, we saw virtually no quitting at all. Those folks seem very nervous about leaving their jobs.

CORNISH: That's Adam Davidson at NPR's Planet Money team. Adam, thanks for breaking it down for us.

DAVIDSON: Thank you, Audie.

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