Best labor report in three years; 162,000 new jobs

The overall unemployment picture is still weak, but March's numbers will undoubtedly please the White House

Published April 2, 2010 1:21PM (EDT)

The labor report everyone was waiting for: In March, reports the government, nonfarm payrolls added 162,000 jobs -- the best monthly total in three years. The unemployment rate held steady at 9.7 percent.

While the total is under the 190-200,000 consensus prediction, that appears to be largely due to a significantly lower number of temporary Census hires than had been expected. Analysts had assumed the government hired 75,000-100,000 Census workers in March. The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegged the total at 48,000.

Let the spin begin: The good news is that manufacturing employment rose by 17,000, construction held steady and health care employment jumped by 27,000. If you believe that strong temporary hiring is a necessary precursor to real job growth, then you might be heartened by the fact that employers added 40,000 temps to their payrolls.

The length of the average work week also rose by .1 hour, another sign that employers are maximizing the productivity of existing workers and will have to make new hires soon.

But there's also plenty of bad news in this report.

  • "The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks and over) increased by 414,000 over the month to 6.5 million."
  • "The number of persons working part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) increased to 9.1 million"
  • The U-6 measure of unemployment (Total unemployed, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force) rose for the third straight month to 16.9 percent.

162,000 new jobs may not be as high a number as the administration was hoping for in March, and it may mask some statistical oddities (a bounce back from February numbers depressed by the northeast snowstorms, and the Census boost). But it is still far better performance than anything the U.S. has seen in a long time, and we can expect Democrats to beat their chests.

But the  question now becomes: How sustainable are these numbers? Census hiring is likely to artificially inflate the total payroll figures for a few more months. Reports from the U.S. manufacturing sector indicate consistent growth that should fuel even more hiring. The fact that construction held steady in March, after months of relatively big losses, is encouraging. If the economy gathers momentum from a stabilizing labor market, the political calculus for the rest of this year could start to swerve. A few more months like this, and November starts looking much, much better for Democrats.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

How The World Works Unemployment U.s. Economy