US job surge fuels optimism in economy

US employers added jobs for the sixth straight month and the national unemployment rate fell to a two-year low in March, providing more evidence of an advancing economic recovery, the US Labor Department reported yesterday.

The solid job gains and slight reduction in the unemployment rate surprised some economists who have worried that the unfolding disaster in Japan and unrest in the oil-producing Middle East could slow the recovery.

“Gas and food costs are squeezing people’s spending power, and, no question, that’s hurting,” said IHS Global Insight’s chief US economist, Nigel Gault.

“But the employment data suggest that the labor market actually had some good momentum and we’re in a better place to withstand those shocks than we thought.”

The national unemployment rate slipped to 8.8 percent last month, from 8.9 percent in February, and is now at the lowest level since March 2008. The economy added 216,000 jobs last month, its sixth straight month of gains. Private employers drove the growth, accounting for more than 200,000 of the new jobs — the biggest gain in private sector employment since 2006.

Government employment fell by 14,000 jobs.

Industries vital to the Massachusetts economy, such as health care and technology services, posted strong national job gains last month. Professional and business services, which includes a variety of technology, scientific, and consulting firms, added 78,000 jobs nationally.

The health care industry added 37,000 jobs in March. Leisure and hospitality, which includes hotels and restaurants, also gained 37,000 jobs.

Denis McSweeney, regional commissioner for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Boston, said the job growth in these sectors bodes well for Massachusetts and Boston. In the Boston metropolitan area, for example, education and health services, the region’s biggest employment sector, grew 23 percent in 2010, he said. Leisure and hospitality jobs, generally fueled by tourism, increased 2.3 percent in the same period, triple the national growth rate, McSweeney said.

“The employment situation for March signals positive vibes for the Commonwealth,” McSweeney said. “Health care, education, leisure and hospitality, those gains are all good news for the state.”

The state reports March employment and unemployment on April 14. In February, the state’s unemployment rate was 8.2 percent, well below the national average.

The national unemployment rate, however, has fallen steeply in recent months, plunging a percentage point since November. Scott Ragusa, president of contract business at Winter, Wyman Cos., a Waltham staffing firm, said he is seeing signs of the improvement locally.

The firm’s client companies had 35 percent more jobs to offer last month than they did in March 2010. Winter, Wyman itself currently has 26 job openings, primarily sales positions.

Ragusa said the firm, which works with companies in the financial, technology, and human resources industries, said employers in all three sectors appear poised to hire.

“They’re adding in critical areas right now,” Ragusa said of employers. “But I would still say companies are running pretty lean compared to two years ago.”

Despite the job gains of recent months, the economy has only begun to recover from the recent recession, considered the worst since the Great Depression. The nation lost nearly 9 million jobs in the downturn, and has so far regained just 1.4 million of those jobs since the labor market began its rebound last year.

“It’s a long way back,” McSweeney said.

Not all the news in yesterday’s report was good. Despite recent job growth, long-term unemployment increased. About 6 million, or 45 percent, of the nation’s 13.5 million unemployed have been out of work for six months our more. That’s up from 43.9 percent in February.

John E. Silvia, chief economist for Wells Fargo & Co. in Charlotte, N.C., said the job gains primarily benefited highly skilled workers, including those who have extensive computer skills.

“The people benefiting from this [gain in jobs] are not the same people who lost their jobs three to five years ago,” he said. “And those jobs are not coming back.”
Source: Boston Globe

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