Economists and stock bulls cheered this morning's better-than-expected November employment report. But was the data as good as it seemed? Consider the following:
Could the nine-month rally in share prices and the positive spin
pouring out of Wall Street and Washington have encouraged some owners
and managers, who are seeing little direct evidence of a rebound in the
economy, to acquire what might be described as a labor call option --
that is, temporary staff (a key factor in the overall increase)?
Otherwise, temporary employees accounted for 52,400 of the hefty
86,000 jump in the professional and business services category. Might
this reflect the fact that firms are temporarily taking on accountants,
lawyers, and others who can help them further reduce costs (e.g.,
labor), restructure operations, and maybe even prepare for bankruptcy?
Today's employment report revealed that the labor force
participation rate dropped to 65%, it's lowest level in more than two
decades; the number of Americans who are unemployed over 26 weeks fell
to a record 3.8% of the civilian workforce; and, the "underemployment"
ratio improved only marginally, to 17.2%.
Could this set of statistics be interpreted as a sign that employers
don't see enough good opportunities to justify taking risks as far as
hiring is concerned? In other words, are they are sticking with the
safe option -- the job market's "known quantities" (e.g., those who are
currently employed or who haven't been out of work too long)?
While much of the focus was on the overall number, the breakdown by
category was less reassuring. Those areas of the economy that would
naturally be associated with a sustainable rebound in activity,
including manufacturing, trade, transportation and utilities, and
construction, are still hemorrhaging jobs.
Moreover, recent developments suggest that two categories which did
see respectable gains, education and health care, face major headwinds
in the period ahead. With municipal budgets under growing strain,
school budgets -- and education-related hiring -- have nowhere to go
but down. And with all eyes now focused on the rising cost of health
care, the pressure to reign in spending will only increase.