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Hiring up, but so is national jobless rate

Sat., March 11, 2006

WASHINGTON — Stuck in a job you hate? Fed up with your boss? With payrolls strengthening, it might be the time to dust off your resume, polish your skills and go looking for that new job.

You’ll probably have plenty of company, though.

Hiring picked up across the economy in February, with employers adding nearly a quarter-million jobs in the biggest boost in three months. Encouraged by help-wanted signs, job seekers turned out in droves, nudging the unemployment rate higher.

The overall picture emerging from the Labor Department’s report Friday suggested businesses are in the mood to hire and may be more inclined to reward existing workers or lure new ones with fatter paychecks, economists said.

Employers expanded payrolls by 243,000 jobs in February. That was better than expected and an improvement over January’s 170,000.

Construction, retail, financial services, health care and education were among the industries seeing employment gains last month. That eclipsed weakness in manufacturing, mostly reflecting job losses in the struggling automotive sector.

“Businesses are apparently seeing strong enough growth in demand for their goods and services to look for more workers — and businesses are being forced to pay up for them because wages are rising strongly, too,” said economist Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors. “The job market is becoming more and more friendly if you are a worker or looking to become one.”

Brighter job prospects sent people streaming into the labor market, however, bumping up the unemployment rate to 4.8 percent in February. While that was up slightly from a 4 1/2 year low of 4.7 percent in January, the new unemployment rate still indicated a healthy jobs climate.

“You are seeing a large number of people coming out of the woodwork because there are jobs to be found. People are now looking for jobs because it is now worth looking,” said Bill Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial Services.

The fresh snapshot of labor activity comes as President Bush continues to cope with sagging job-approval ratings. Just 37 percent approve of his overall performance, the lowest level of his presidency, according to an AP-Ipsos poll.

“American workers are defying the pessimists,” Bush declared. “Our economy is strong.”

Economists said the employment report and other economic data buttress their belief that the economy has snapped out of an end-of-year funk. Analysts predict the economy is growing at a brisk pace of 4.5 percent or higher in the January-to-March quarter. That would mark an energetic rebound from the lethargic 1.6 percent growth rate logged in last year’s final quarter.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., called the payroll gain in February “welcome news” but added: “The labor market is not yet back to full strength.” He worried that some workers’ paychecks are being stretched thinner by expensive energy bills and health care costs.

Employees’ average hourly earnings rose to $16.47 in February, a modest 0.3 percent increase from January.

However, compared with February of last year, average hourly earnings increased by 3.5 percent — the biggest 12-month gain since September 2001.


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