Laid off in December, pharmacy technician Roderick Bruce finds it hard to be excited about the way the nation's unemployment rate dropped to 9.4 percent last month.
"It's a tough time right now," Bruce, of Philadelphia, said about the report released Friday by the Labor Department.
The nation's nonfarm payrolls added 103,000 jobs in December, the department announced. That marked an increase over the economy's paltry performance in November, when 71,000 jobs were produced.
The unemployment rate declined from 9.8 percent in November and 9.9 percent a year ago. It is the lowest rate since May 2009.
Although the economy did grow enough to generate jobs, the drop in the unemployment rate represents something more dire: a dramatic decline in the nation's labor force as more people, discouraged about their employment prospects, gave up looking for work and dropped out of the job market.
"When I look at the whole basket of labor-market-related data, it is improving," said Robert Dye, senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh.
"Within that basket," he said, "you are going to find some data points that tick down, but I think it is a fair statement to say labor-market conditions are improving."
He cited Wednesday's ADP National Employment Report, which showed an increase of 297,000 private-sector jobs in December, with the bulk of them in small and midsize companies.
While the news was generally good, with increased hiring in manufacturing, business services, retail, health, and education, it will be a long time before the economy can generate enough jobs to keep even with the growth of the labor force and make up for what was lost in the recession, which began three years ago in December 2007.
The nation's payrolls would have to expand by 500,000 a month every month for the next three years.
'A lot to do'
Through all of 2010, the nation added 1.1 million jobs, or 94,000 jobs a month.
"Even though our economy is recovering, we've still got a lot to do," said President Obama, visiting a factory in Maryland on Friday.
"This was a brutal recession that we went through, the worst in our lifetimes," he said. "It left a lot of destruction in its wake. So even though we've created 1.3 million jobs, and we saved a whole lot of jobs, you've still got a whole bunch of folks who are out there looking, still struggling."
Friday's report doesn't ring true in Bensalem, where Express Scripts Inc., the pharmacy-benefits company, based in St. Louis, closed one of its two facilities. About 400 lost their jobs in December.
"Right now, the job market is slim to none," said Bruce, 47, who had been with the company for 10 years before he was laid off last month. "I haven't heard back from anyone."
The duration of unemployment continues to grow. The average length of unemployment was 34.2 weeks, up from 29.3 weeks in December 2009, and 44.3 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for more than six months.
The number of discouraged workers who believe they can't find jobs has also grown by more than a third over the last year. In December, there were 1.3 million discouraged workers, up from 929,000 in December 2009.
While many sectors showed growth, others continued to shed jobs. Construction lost 16,000 jobs - in a statistic that is adjusted to factor in weather. Government hiring dropped as cities, counties, and municipalities laid off workers.
Even so, there are positive indicators.
Monster.com's index based on online job postings in Philadelphia rose last month. Demand is up 44 percent year over year, the company said Thursday.
Another sign? Staffing companies are hiring recruiters. Korn/Ferry International's Philadelphia office, for example, laid off 20 of its 55 recruiters and support staff as employment declined.
In December, it hired two new recruiters and one temporary recruiter.
"Our workload is up," said David Shabot, who heads the office, which specializes in health-care recruitment. A bright spot, he said, is that private-equity money is finding its way to biotech firms, who are beginning to hire in response.
Hiring also appears to be up in Philadelphia manufacturing, according to Stephen Jurash, who heads the Urban Industry Initiative, an organization affiliated with the city's Commerce Department.
"There are an awful lot of entry-level positions," he said. "There are two things: I think the economy is better, but I don't think Philadelphia manufacturing got hit as hard. The fact that they are very specialized and niche-oriented has kept them alive."