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Unemployment Numbers Add To Economic Gloom


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. The Labor Department says unemployment surged above 8 percent last month. That's a figure we haven't seen since the Reagan administration. Also in February, the economy shed 651,000 jobs. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on just a few of the faces behind those numbers.

FRANK LANGFITT: When the job numbers came out this morning, economists turned to language like this: horrendous, staring into the abyss. Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial, was a little more restrained, but not much.

Mr. STUART HOFFMAN (Chief Economist, PNC Financial): Job losses are just, unfortunately, fast and furious. There is no particular light at the end of this tunnel.

LANGFITT: Hoffman says one thing driving the continued job loss is consumer spending. There's not enough of it, and that's starving the economy. Hoffman says that after years of spending wildly, many Americans have done a u-turn, pinching pennies as they fear the worst.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Frankly, we're caught in the grips of what I call a national financial anxiety attack.

LANGFITT: In the monthly employment report, the big numbers, like those huge job losses you just heard, they get the attention. But other government data paint a more nuanced picture of the labor market and how it's changing. In this recession, men are taking the brunt of job losses. Francine Blau says it's because they work in the hardest-hit sectors. Blau is a labor economist at Cornell.

Professor FRANCINE BLAU (Labor Economist, Cornell): Men are, compared to women, disproportionably represented in manufacturing and construction jobs.

LANGFITT: And that's leaving some women to pick up the slack when their husbands are laid off. That's what happened to Roger and Carolyn(ph) Anderson. Roger did designs for water and sewage-treatment systems for housing developments in Florida. But when the real estate bubble burst, he lost his job and a $45,000-a-year salary. Since then, Carolyn has taking on more work, cleaning mobile homes. Roger explains.

Mr. ROGER ANDERSON: (Water Treatment Systems Designer): She only charges them like 30, $35. So she's doing two or three a day. Lately, sometimes she'll go and work on Saturday. You know, I keep telling her she doesn't really have to, but she will.

LANGFITT: Roger says the growing workload is tough on his wife, who has a history of back problems. And he says she's more stressed.

Mr. ANDERSON: If a bill comes in that's a little bigger than normal or something breaks down or that type of thing, she starts, you know, quizzing me all the time. You know, is this okay? Are we are going to be okay? And, you know, do I need to get more jobs - this kind of stuff. She gets panicky.

LANGFITT: Roger says he always helped out around home, but these days even more so.

Mr. ANDERSON: Now that it's just her working, as I do - I clean the house for her now. I try to do some of the laundry.

LANGFITT: Roger Anderson says he has been hunting for work for more than a year, but without any luck. And that's not surprising. The construction business on which Anderson's work depended shed more than 100,000 jobs last month. That's not to say there aren't any jobs in the country. Education, government and health care continue to grow, and even in manufacturing, which has bled jobs for years, there are small bright spots.

Mr. MIKE PETTERS (Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding): Over the next 12 months or so, we expect to hire about 4,000 people.

LANGFITT: That's Mike Petters. He runs Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding. The company builds aircraft carriers, destroyers and subs, things the government orders long in advance and don't depend on consumer spending.

Mr. PETTERS: You know, we have an advantage that many businesses don't have. We are able to see beyond next quarter. Just last year, the shipyard in Virginia participated in signing two contracts with the Navy that will carry work out through the middle of next decade.

LANGFITT: Petters plans to hire electricians, welders and pipe fitters. He says salaries could reach 40 to $50,000 a year with overtime. But hiring like this is rare these days, and most people are just trying to hold on to what they have. Since the recession began in December of 2007, the economy has lost more than 4 million jobs.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.