Hiring up, as is optimism

192,000 jobs added in Feb. is biggest jump in nearly a year

By Catherine Rampell
New York Times / March 5, 2011

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The economic waiting game may soon be over, as businesses signal that they are finally willing to resume widespread hiring.

In all, the nation added 192,000 jobs in February, a big jump from the 63,000 added the previous month, the Labor Department reported yesterday.

The job growth was the most in nearly a year and the 12th straight month of gains by companies, which added 222,000 workers last month. It followed an unusually weak report in January, when major snowstorms prompted offices and factories to close.

Taken together, the first two months of the year produced growth at about the same pace as last fall.

Economists say they are hopeful the pace will soon pick up further.

“Economic recoveries can be like a snowball rolling down a hill, in that it takes time to get some momentum,’’ said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics.

“People hesitate until they feel that the recovery’s durable enough, and then they have a tendency to jump in. Maybe we’re finally getting to that jumping-in moment.’’

Threats to a more robust recovery remain, of course, including a surge in energy and food prices, with the possibility of disruptions in oil production in the Middle East continuing to weigh on the financial markets. State and local governments are also shedding jobs, which depressed the total for February, as they grapple with budget woes.

But for now, the improvement is notable. The unemployment rate ticked down to 8.9 percent last month, falling below 9 percent for the first time in nearly two years.

This rate, which comes from a survey separate from the payroll numbers and is based on the total number of Americans who want to work, has remained stubbornly high the past year. Altogether, 13.7 million people are still out of work and actively looking.

Economists say the unemployment rate could rise temporarily in the next few months, as stronger job growth lures some discouraged workers to look for jobs again.

Just 64.2 percent of adults are actively involved in the workforce, meaning they are either in a job or actively looking for one. That is the lowest participation rate in 25 years, an indication that many Americans are either staying home, going back to school, raising children, or otherwise waiting for better conditions before applying for work.

“It’s a puzzle, a genuine puzzle why that number has been stuck,’’ said Jay Feldman, a senior economist at Credit Suisse. “I expect it to recover somewhat in the coming months as the labor market improves and more people become encouraged about their job prospects.’’

Other recent economic reports — like those on unemployment claims and manufacturing — have pointed to stronger demand for workers.

The Federal Reserve, in a survey of its 12 districts, noted Wednesday that the labor market had improved modestly, but the Fed chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, told lawmakers that “until we see a sustained period of stronger job creation, we cannot consider the recovery to be truly established.’’

The unemployment rate has fallen from a peak of 10.1 percent in this downturn.

A broad measure of unemployment, which includes people working part-time because they could not find full-time jobs and those so discouraged that they have given up searching, dipped to 15.9 percent in February, from 16.1 percent in January.

Job gains appeared in nearly every industry. Among the biggest winners were the manufacturing, construction, and professional and business services industries. Construction payrolls bounced back from a very low level in January, when severe snowstorms hindered activity.