February jobless rate unchanged at 9.7 percent

George Landau, of Upper Darby, applies for job as a SEPTA paratransit driver with First Transit, a national bus transportation provider, at a job fair in Northeast Philadelphia. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

The weather outside was frightful, but in relative terms, last month's job situation was almost delightful. The unemployment rate stayed at 9.7 percent, and the nation's payrolls shed only 36,000 jobs, the Labor Department reported.

To put the number in perspective, a year ago February, 726,000 jobs were lost in one month.

"This was a heartening report," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors in Bucks County.

But construction workers didn't get the valentine.

Snow affected the already-troubled sector, with 64,000 jobs lost last month. Nationally, more than one in four construction workers is out of a job.

Maybe the valentine is in the mail.

"I'm starting to see some real prospects. There is an air of optimism," said Patrick B. Gillespie, business manager of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, an umbrella group of construction unions.

"It still comes down to finding investment capital for construction projects," he said.

Nationally, the number of unemployed rose to 14.9 million, and the average length of unemployment has been longer than seven months, at nearly 30 weeks.

"People are edgier than they have been. Anxiety is much higher," said Todd Cohen, president of Sales Leader L.L.C. in Philadelphia and codirector of Career Transitions, a networking group for the unemployed that has been meeting at Villanova University.

"People are really getting scared," he said. "There's a lack of hope. It's a sense of 'I've been out of work for so long. When I am going to find a job?' "

The effect of the recession has varied widely across the country, but, as usual, Philadelphia falls right in the middle, despite announcements last week of major job cuts in pharmaceuticals.

The metropolitan area has lost 5.24 percent of its jobs since the start of the recession in December 2007 but is doing better than the national average of 6.11 percent.

The new jobs report "is actually better than expected," President Obama said yesterday, but he added that the number of unemployed Americans was "more than we should tolerate" and pushed Congress to pass a jobs bill.

Obama urged lawmakers to expand unemployment benefits and temporary health insurance through year's end.

Job growth tends to lag the economy. "We may still see the rate rise as frustrated workers come back into the market," Naroff cautioned.

Potential workers who have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for a better job market may begin sending out resumès. If the nation's companies don't expand their payrolls enough - and that's not likely, given the trends - these returning workers will be counted among the unemployed.

The labor force has begun to expand. It was up 342,000 in February. Economists say payrolls must grow 120,000 to 150,000 a month simply to handle the rise in the working-age population.

That means that this month's job loss of 36,000 puts the nation in the hole by 156,000 to 186,000 jobs.

"It's a mess," said Scott Rosen, president of the Rosen Group, a Voorhees staffing agency that specializes in human-resource personnel.

Rosen talked about one laid-off human-resource person he met recently. The man had had executive human-resource responsibilities at an insurance company and, most recently, in pharmaceuticals.

"That guy is a home run," Rosen said. "If he has trouble landing, then it's a challenge out there."

A small January uptick at Rosen's firm disappeared in February, he said. However, in the last three weeks, he has gotten three calls from manufacturers. One needed to hire a recruiter.

"That's a growth kind of opportunity," he said. "We hadn't heard much from any manufacturers for at least a year, so to hear from any manufacturer is good news."

Indeed, manufacturing hiring rose by 1,000, with minuscule amounts of hiring in a variety of product categories enough to compensate for losses of 11,000 jobs in the manufacturing of transportation equipment.

Service-sector jobs also increased, by 42,000, with hiring in business and professional services, education and health services, and leisure and hospitality offsetting significant declines in the sectors of transportation and warehousing; information, including publishing; and financial activities.

Government hiring fell by 18,000, despite U.S. Census employment, which boosted federal government payrolls 16,100. The Postal Service scaled back 9,000.

Among those hiring locally is First Transit Inc., a Cincinnati-based company that contracts with SEPTA to run its paratransit program.

To find 50 drivers, the company is holding a job fair today and tomorrow at the Four Points by Sheraton Philadelphia Northeast on Roosevelt Boulevard. "We're a bit low on our count," human-resources director Christy Baccille said.

Last month, Exude Benefits Group Corp. in Center City hired a director of business development to increase sales of the company's services, which include consulting in human resources.

"Just in the past month, I've started to see a glimmer of hope - positions starting to open," said Alison DiFlorio, president of the group's human-resources practice, speaking about her clients.

"All of our clients are doing more with less," she said. "Employees are now being tapped beyond their wildest expectations. Employers are beginning to see they have to add even one person to a team to alleviate that stress."


Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.