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Employment Numbers Exceed Expectations


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning on this Friday. Let's talk a little more deeply about the surprisingly strong jobs report that came out today. NPR's Yuki Noguchi is here with the numbers. Hi, Yuki.


INSKEEP: OK. So what does the Labor Department say happened in the labor market in February?

NOGUCHI: OK. So, 236,000 net jobs added last month. The prediction had been for 160,000, so this is far better. The unemployment rate ticked down more than expected, to 7.7 percent. The last time it was at that level was at the end of 2008. And, of course, then, the rate was heading way up.

INSKEEP: OK. So we've had one jobs report after another that has shown modest improvement. This is a significantly improved labor market, at least for one month?

NOGUCHI: Yeah. It looks like it is improving at a faster rate than it had been. The rate can sometimes improve for anomalous reasons, as you know. But last month, this report tells us that it improved for the right reasons. The number of people employed increased. We did see some people drop out of the labor force. Maybe they're retiring. Maybe they got discouraged and gave up. But the number wasn't huge. But the biggest news here is that the private sector added nearly a quarter-of-a-million jobs. And the biggest of those gains came from what are considered good, well-paying jobs - so, business and professional services, construction, health care and IT.

INSKEEP: OK. So this is big, because in previous unemployment reports, we've been told that although the number of jobs was increasing, there were a lot of part-time jobs in there, a lot of jobs without benefits, a lot of low-paying jobs. This is a different complexion.

NOGUCHI: Right. And, you know, if you were working, you were working more hours, and you also earned more. That's what was in this last report.

INSKEEP: OK. So this comes as there's a lot of talk about spending cuts in Washington. Now, of course, those have just been imposed in the last few days. They wouldn't be reflected, I suppose, in this unemployment report. But people have been worrying about the budget battles in Washington for some time. Is there any sign of any effects from the politics that's going on, here?

NOGUCHI: Well, not yet. I mean, the Labor Department, as you say, wouldn't - it wouldn't show up in this report, unless, of course, some employers were holding back in anticipation of those cuts. And we are not seeing evidence of that yet.

You did see 10,000 government jobs lost, but those were state-level. The federal furloughs, as you say, won't start affecting workers for several weeks, but it will be an interesting thing to watch for next month.

INSKEEP: If people are furloughed, are they still counted as employed?

NOGUCHI: Yes, they are counted as employed, but they may be counted as part-time, hoping to work more. So the Labor Department doesn't actually track furloughed workers, but that doesn't mean we won't see an impact. It won't just be federal workers that are affected. Defense and other government contractors are likely to see their budgets cut. So we could see, actually, private sector hiring hurt, as well.

INSKEEP: And maybe this is a moment to regain some perspective, here, because we have a strong jobs report, the best unemployment rate in years, and yet a 7.7 percent unemployment rate in any other context would be considered a disaster. Aren't we still in a very grim jobs market, here?

NOGUCHI: Yes. I mean, there are still 12 million people who are unemployed, and, you know, we still, as you say, have a very high unemployment rate. But we are starting to see, perhaps - I mean, we saw the Dow hit a new high this week. And so we are starting to see, perhaps, that this disconnect between the job market and the stock market start to narrow, you know. In the past, it had been the case that companies were more efficient. They were doing more with fewer workers. But perhaps you're starting to see those corporate profits now translate into some more hiring.

INSKEEP: Meaning that companies have finally gotten to a point where they're comfortable adding to the payroll, or they feel they finally need to add to the payroll.

NOGUCHI: We'll see if this continues, but that seems - there's some evidence of that in this report.

INSKEEP: Yuki, thanks very much.

NOGUCHI: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Yuki Noguchi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.