Despite Positive Signs, Jobs Still Hard To Find

January 6, 2011

Brett Neely

Even if it feels like a bad job market -- and no doubt it is for millions of Americans -- there are job opportunities out there. And more appear every day as the economy slowly begins to recover.

Private-sector employers added 297,000 jobs in December, according to a report by Macroeconomic Advisers and the payroll firm ADP. Job growth in the last month of the year was triple what economists polled by Dow Jones expected.

"Employment is accelerating, and has been accelerating since late summer," says Joel Prakken, chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers. "And furthermore, that acceleration is fairly broad-based among the sectors we can look at."

Even with the labor market showing signs of life, it took Jessica Cooper six months to find work -- a process that involved lowering her expectations.

Cooper, who lives in central New Jersey, is a bookkeeper with years of experience in the construction industry. But with construction moribund since the housing bubble burst, there were no jobs to be found in the industry. As it turned out, she also couldn't find any bookkeeping jobs.

But during Cooper’s job search, she saw plenty of jobs in the health care field, which has continued to add positions through the recession.

"I felt like every time I was doing a job search, it was nurses and physicians' assistants and things like that, and I don't have any training in that sort of thing," Cooper says.

She eventually wound up getting hired by the Gap in December. But she took a $12-an-hour pay cut for the part-time job selling clothes at a local mall.

"It was kind of disappointing, but at the same time, I knew that was the way it was going to be," Cooper says and laughs. "I just needed a job, so I went for it."

Retail Hiring And Expansion

The service sector, which includes retailers, has begun to bounce back. Even as the holiday shopping season ends, large retailers including Macy's and Dollar General announced expansion plans this week, fueled by growing consumer spending. Sales at stores open at least a year rose by 3.1 percent in December, according to a Thomson-Reuters index of leading retailers.

Dollar General, a discount chain, plans to open 625 new stores in 2011 and hire more than 6,000 workers across the country. Company spokeswoman Tawn Earnest says most of the positions will pay "competitive" wages with benefits including a 401(k) plan for all workers.

Macy's spokesman Jim Sluzewski says the department store chain will add 3,500 positions across the country over the next two years to beef up its online operations. The jobs include a mix of management and technology positions, as well as lower-paying positions in the company's distribution centers.

But according to data from Hoovers, the chain's current workforce of 161,000 is about 20,000 workers smaller than it was in 2008, which means this latest round of hiring amounts to a small fraction of the jobs lost during the recession.

Companies Exercising Caution

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

"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," he says.

Productivity has climbed at American companies over the past two years thanks to the growing use of technology, Burtless says. That means firms can do the same amount of work with fewer employees. Many companies have also relied on temporary workers instead of permanent ones, just in case the economy weakens again.

Temporary Jobs: A Relief For Some

Adecco, a large staffing company, has seen a "significant increase" in the number of temporary job postings in recent months, says Anthony Guerrieri, a spokesman for the firm.

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

"The job is a temporary position -- it's for a staffing company doing research on the clients they have," he says, adding that he's happy to have any kind of work after two years of odd jobs and relying on his fiancee for financial support.

Job Gains, Losses At Boeing

Boeing hired about 3,000 workers in its commercial airplane business last year to increase production and plans to add more this year. That will also boost the plane maker's 22,000 suppliers in all 50 states, says company spokesman Tim Neale.

Boeing's hiring comes thanks to a surge of orders from overseas, "particularly in Asia and the Middle East, but also in places like Africa and Latin America where passenger traffic is on the rise," Neale says.

But even as Boeing's airliner business improves, he says, the company's large defense unit is shedding jobs because of Pentagon budget cuts.

Tighter government budgets mean that one reliable source of work for job seekers until now is going away. State and local governments nationwide are cutting payrolls to balance budgets, and tens of thousands of government workers will lose their jobs. That means private-sector employers will have a lot of hiring to do to bring the unemployment rate down dramatically. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.