Falling Unemployment Rate is No Joke

By Kyle Stock and Jeremy Greenfield

On the first day of April, it pays not to be a fool when it comes to jobs: Acquiring new skills and even going back to school is the best way to capitalize on the second straight month of strong U.S. job growth, say labor economists and workforce experts.

The unemployment rate fell to 8.8 percent in March, as the private sector added 230,000 jobs, according to today's report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Businesses are hiring as they grow," said Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner. "And as the economy picks up a little bit, hopefully they'll start hiring in anticipation of growth."

Many of those plugging back into the work force have spent time acquiring new skills in community colleges.

"Every day that someone is not working,their skills are atrophying," Vitner said. "Anything you can do to reverse that will be tremendously valuable."

Programs at government-sponsored career centers and community colleges do help people get jobs,according to a recent research project by labor economist Louis Jacobson, founder of New Horizons Economic Research, based in the Washington, D.C., area.

"They're pretty potent," Jacobson said. "There are a lot of fields that they offer where people do get jobs."

Jacobson said classes in security services, health care, communications and engineering have served unemployed workers particularly well in recent months.

"Community college enrollments have surged during the recession," said Wells Fargo's Vitner.

In late 2008,3.4 million people were enrolled in community colleges, up from 2.4 million a decade earlier -- a 44 percent increase, according to a report from the Pew Research Center.

The positive employment numbers this morning are also good news for discouraged job hunters and those looking to switch jobs, said Bill Driscoll, a Boston-based district president with staffing giant Robert Half International.

"I think candidates are sensing that there is opportunity out there," Driscoll said. "They don't have to be in lock-down mode, so to speak."

Companies, however, have become more rigorous in screening applicants. Drug-tests, background checks and multiple interviews have become the norm, according to Vitner.

A lot of businesses are hiring workers on a temporary or part-time basis as a sort of trial period before extending a full-time offer, said Vitner. Indeed, there were almost 8.4 million people working part-time for economic reasons in March, according to this morning's report.

"Businesses are being very careful about hiring," Vitner said. "You need to make the best case that you can for yourself. A lot of businesses are using temporaries and contract workers before they hire them. You want to try to get as much contract work as you can."

Vitner thinks the unemployment rate won't drop substantially this year, however, moving to 8.5 percent by year-end, because companies are only hiring for need and not for anticipated growth.

"Companies are still hiring with growth," said Robert Half's Driscoll.

"It may be the end of the jobless recovery; but job growth is still likely to be relatively sluggish," he said.

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