As the nation's payrolls declined by 263,000 jobs in September, the number of unemployed people topped 15 million, the Labor Department reported yesterday.

The unemployment rate, now at 9.8 percent, has doubled since the start of the recession, in December 2007.

"The labor market is still going backward," said economist Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Advisors Inc. in Bucks County. "Job losses remain high and the unemployment rate keeps rising."

Every single major sector of business showed continued declines, with the exception of education and health services, which added a mere 3,000 jobs. The information sector, which includes telecommunications and moviemaking, stayed flat.

If there is any stimulus money going into infrastructure and green construction, it is not evident from the numbers, because construction lost 64,000 jobs - more than the perennial loser, manufacturing. Even heavy and civil engineering construction, the group that would be building roads and bridges, saw a decline of 11,900 jobs.

In the past, government hiring had managed to somewhat offset losses in the private sector, but government jobs declined by 53,000, with the biggest number of cuts on the local and state levels. Even the Postal Service, which is included in the public-sector job statistics, dropped 5,300 jobs.

"The major surprise came from the public sector, where every level of government cut back," Naroff said. "The budget crises at the state and local levels have caused an awful lot of belt-tightening."

More than 7.2 million jobs have been eliminated since the recession began in December 2007.

Hourly earnings rose by a penny last month, to $18.67, while weekly wages fell $1.54 to $616.11, according to the government data.

The average workweek fell back to a record low of 33 hours in September. That figure is important because economists are looking for companies to add more hours for current workers before they hire new ones.

With losses in so many sectors, the toll on the jobless is increasing. Adding in the number of people who are forced to work part time, plus those who are too discouraged to look for work, the unemployment rate is 17 percent.

More than a third of the unemployed, 5.4 million, have been out of work for more than 27 weeks. In fact, the average length of unemployment is 26.2 weeks.

"I think these numbers are really frightening people," said Valerie Ashley, a career counselor in Chestnut Hill who is cosponsoring a series of job-search workshops with merchants in the Chestnut Hill area. The next session will be Oct. 17 above O'Doodle's Toy Store.

"People had really counted on the economic stimulus to add jobs, but it hasn't," Ashley said. "When you are hearing about a 9.8 percent unemployment rate, it pulls down people's sense of hope completely."

Among those particularly hard hit by the job situation are males 16 and 17 who want to work. For them, the unemployment rate tops 30 percent. Even worse off are male and female African Americans ages 16 to 19, whose unemployment rate is close to 41 percent.

Although the numbers are still dreadful, Harry Griendling, founder and chief executive of DoubleStar Inc., a recruiting and employment consulting group in West Chester, says he is experiencing an uptick in business.

"When I talk to my friends in town, they are saying the same," he said.

His company conducts a quarterly survey of area businesses about their hiring plans in the forthcoming quarter, and the survey taken over the summer showed improvement for the first time in a year. The percentage of companies that said they planned to hire increased.

But, he said, "it's important not to overstate this. It's not like the floodgates have opened and people are hiring."

In the survey, for example, only 25 percent planned to add jobs in this quarter. While that's up, hiring companies remain in the minority.

His company is a case in point. In December, Griendling laid off 15 staffers, including recruiters, a fifth of his 75-employee workforce.

Starting this month, he is bringing back five. But Griendling is hedging his bets. All he is committing to is a 90-day contract. "My clients are using caution, so I'm using caution," he said.

Among the five is Jeanene Johnston, 45, of Hockessin, Del., who now is among the 15 million unemployed people in America.

"I am thrilled," said Johnston, a recruiter who has seen several recessions in her 23 years in the business. This recession "has seemed longer and there are more people unemployed," she said.

Indeed, the current recession has cost the nation a bigger share of jobs than any other economic downturn since the end of World War II, according to the Labor Department.

The picture may get even bleaker when the Labor Department officially revises its figures next year. Some expect the number of jobs lost in the 12 months from March 2009 to March 2010 to increase by 824,000.

Many analysts expect that the economy grew at a healthy clip in the July-September quarter, technically ending the recession, but few think the recovery will be strong enough to lower the jobless rate. Most economists expect the rate to top 10 percent and keep climbing.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Thursday that even if the economy were to grow at a 3 percent pace in the coming quarters, it would not be enough to quickly drive down the unemployment rate.

The Inquirer's continuing series "Jobs at a Loss,"

Jane Von Bergen's "Jobbing" blog, and an interactive map of jobless claims are at