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March Jobs Report Offers Mixed Messages


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, city and state leaders in Michigan have reached a deal they hope will help Detroit stave off a financial meltdown. We'll get the latest from The Motor City in just a few minutes. But first, we want to talk about the national employment picture. The Labor Department is reporting weaker-than-expected job growth figures nationally for the month of March. The economy added about 120,000 jobs last month, but that was down from more than 200,000 in each of the last three months.

The unemployment rate did fall to 8.2 percent. It's the lowest level in more than three years, but the recent dip is mainly because fewer people were looking for jobs last month. But it's not all bad news. The country has added about 858,000 jobs since December. That's the best four months of hiring in two years. And earlier this week, we found out that the number of people seeking unemployment benefits is at its lowest level in four years. We wanted to try to make sense of this kind of complicated picture, so once again, we've called upon NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Welcome back, Marilyn.


MARTIN: So, tell us, what does this mean?

GEEWAX: It is a disappointing report, but it's a complicated economy. So we have to sort of tear it apart a little bit and take a closer look at what the numbers show us. There were areas of real strength. We had good numbers in autos and restaurants, bars. There were things that were doing pretty well. But we had some real disappointments. Retail, for example, just didn't add jobs the way you would have thought. So it seems like what may have happened was that December, January and February were so warm, much of the country, remember, it was like spring all winter long.

So stores brought in spring merchandise early. They hired in January and February, and by the time they got to March, they really just didn't need to add anybody else. So we've seen some - and the same thing, really, with construction, as well. Some people were hired in February that normally wouldn't have been hired until March. So it may be that what you really need to do is look at the average over four months, put December, January, February and March all together, and then it averages out to about 215,000 jobs. And that sort of evens it out a little bit more. And it's generally positive, but it's no question that March was a disappointment.

MARTIN: Well, and of course, the most important job is your own, right? And so we wanted to find out what listeners were experiencing, so we reached out on Facebook, which is something that we've been doing as the course of this, you know, recession has continued. We received hundreds of responses from people telling us about their own individual situations. Let's listen first to Philip Crystal(ph) from Reno, Nevada.

PHILIP CRYSTAL: I'm a U.S. Army veteran of the war in Iraq, and I'm graduating with a degree in history next month. To date, I have applied for nearly 30 jobs, with no success. One option is to attend graduate school in order to make myself more competitive for when jobs do become available. Luckily, my wife is Finnish, so attending graduate school in Finland will be tuition-free.

MARTIN: So, first, let me say to Philip, thank you for your service. And secondly, Marilyn, this speaks to a question that I had for you. I don't know whether this young man qualifies as the so-called discouraged unemployed, because it seems as though he's still looking, not quite sure. But is there a group of people who have given up, and is that reflected in the numbers that we're seeing?

GEEWAX: Yes. That's why the unemployment rate dipped a little bit from 8.3 down to 8.2 percent. That reflects the total number of workers - or people who wish they were workers and how many of them don't have jobs. Well, if the people who are seeking work drop out of the workforce, then that makes - that can help that rate go down a little bit. There are different reasons why people drop out, as that gentleman just said.

Maybe you decide it's a good time to go back to school. Sometimes you can drop out of the workforce for sort of positive reasons. Maybe your spouse has is getting more overtime, and now you can stay home with the kids, so you drop out. That might be a reflection of a good thing in the economy. There are other people who have been unemployed so long, they've sort of aged out of it. They're 62 now. They can start to collect some Social Security, so maybe they drop out.

Whatever reason, we are seeing some contraction in the total labor force. But there's also something else happening, and that's what - I call it capitulation. You know, when you first lose your job, you want to get back to the same thing you were doing. You want to get back to your old salary. But after a while, if you've been out of work a year or so, you finally capitulate and say, you know what? I've got to re-career. I've got to take a lower salary or change fields. And that's what we heard from Jennifer Stroble(ph). She's from Hampton Township in Pennsylvania, and here's what she had to tell us.

JENNIFER STROBLE: After a year of unemployment due to downsizing in the banking industry, I was extremely fortunate to be invited to transition the volunteer work that I was doing for a local animal shelter into a full-time job. I've noted that a number of my colleagues have actively sought jobs in the nonprofit sector, because if you're going to be paid just above minimum wage, you need to feel as if you're making a difference in the community.

MARTIN: Interesting. So, yesterday, Marilyn, President Obama signed the JOBS Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation - unusual in these times for that to have that kind of bipartisan support. It's supposed to help small businesses in particular. Could you just tell us a little bit how that would work?

GEEWAX: Yes. This business - this is called the Jumpstart Our Business startups - kind of an awkward name. But the JOBS Act is supposed to help small businesses that want to grow very quickly. You know, not all small businesses really want to grow. Some of them are just a dry cleaner, and you just want to hire your cousin and clean a few shirts, and that's all you want to do. Other small businesses want to be the next Facebook. They want to grow like crazy.

They want to add thousands of employees. Well, it can be tricky for them to get the kind of funding they need to be able to grow very rapidly. This changes some regulations to make it a lot easier for those small businesses to help people get started. And, you know, we saw people - look at all the people who wasted money on Mega Millions tickets, you know. It might be a whole lot more sensible to buy some stock in a small company that turns into the next Facebook, and not only do you get rich, but you actually help create jobs.

MARTIN: I don't know if it was a waste if you won, but I didn't. So, maybe you're right.

GEEWAX: Right.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about the latest unemployment figures with NPR's senior business editor, Marilyn Geewax. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.