February's Mixed Jobs Picture: More Losses, Steady Unemployment Rate


Americans will have to wait at least another month to hear unambiguously good news regarding job growth in the U.S. In February, the world's largest economy lost 36,000 more jobs, the U.S. Labor Department announced Friday. However, the unemployment rate was unchanged at 9.7%. And both figures are better than most experts had been expecting. A Bloomberg News economists survey had forecast a loss of 50,000 jobs in the month and the unemployment rate to rise to 9.8% from January's 9.7%.

The revisions made to the previous two months also created a muddy picture of just how the trend is developing. The Labor Department now says the economy lost a revised 26,000 in January and 109,000 in December, compared to its previously released losses of 20,000 and 150,000, respectively.

In addition, the Labor Department's other, separate unemployment gauge, which includes workers who can find only part-time work and discouraged workers, rose to 16.8% in February from 16.5% in January. All told since the recession started in December 2007, the economy has now lost more than 8.5 million jobs.

Ups and Downs in Hiring

The February report did have a few clearly bright spots. Temporary jobs, which usually signal a new hiring phase, increased by 42,000 in February. Since July, the temporary-job category has added 299,000 jobs. The U.S. government also added 15,000 temporary U.S. Census workers. Manufacturing added 1,000 jobs -- the sector's second straight gain. Retail employment was unchanged.

On the downside, information technology shed 18,000 jobs, and construction lost 64,000.

Also, average hourly earnings rose 3 cents to $18.93 in February. The average workweek fell to 33.8 hours in February from 33.9 hours in January.

No Guarantees

Investors should keep in mind that the Labor Department's monthly job total is subject to revisions as more information comes in. These revisions are sometimes as large as 100,000 jobs. Also, one month's job gain wouldn't guarantee that losses won't resume: Some estimates assign a roughly 20% probability of the U.S. economy slipping back into recession in 2010. Still, the job trend over the past year points to an improving -- however slowly -- U.S. job market in 2010.

Also, don't expect the U.S. Federal Reserve to change monetary policy after a month of solid job gains is finally reported. Fed governors have repeatedly indicated that would need to see more than one good monthly report would to convince them the job market is recovering.