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The U.S. economy had a net gain of 227,000 jobs in February, while the unemployment rate held steady at 8.3 percent. Some industry experts say Friday's employment data is the latest in a series of generally upbeat economic reports showing the economy regaining strength and recovering from the worst recession in decades. But millions of people are still out of work and an economic scholar says the headline unemployment numbers mask some serious continuing problems.
Friday's closely-watched report from the Labor Department shows strong job growth in February, and indicates job gains in the prior two months were stronger than first reported. Altogether it means that U.S. job growth over the past six months is the strongest since 2006, which was before the financial crisis.
Surveys show the improved job situation is giving consumers more confidence that they will have jobs and makes them more likely to purchase appliances, cars or houses, which stimulates the economy -- and further boosts employment. That is important because consumer demand drives about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.
These job gains are also part of an improving economic picture that is encouraging businesses to begin hiring.
Growing business confidence was evident earlier this week in a survey of financial executives across the nation. Researchers at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants questioned more than 1,300 key financial managers, including Jim Morrison, chief financial officer of Teknor Apex, a plastics company in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
He says businesses have been reluctant to hire new people and have instead been squeezing more productivity out of their existing workforce. "Nobody wants to be hiring before they are absolutely certain that the economic upturn is here to stay because you don’t want to hire people and then be faced with a layoff when things down turn," Morison said.
But Morrison says companies have already done everything they can think of to boost productivity, from spending more on computers, to asking employees to work more than their normal hours for premium pay. He says hiring is improving because managers are becoming convinced they can not meet growing demand without a growing workforce.
While the outlook is improving, 12.8 million people in the U.S. are still officially counted as unemployed.
An economic scholar at the American Enterprise Institute says the job situation is actually worse than the headline numbers suggest.
Aparna Mathur says an additional eight million want full-time employment but can find only part-time jobs. Another one million out-of-work people are so discouraged that they have given up seeking jobs, believing there is no work available for them. They are not officially counted as unemployed unless they have searched for a job in the past four weeks.
"If you include all of those people, the marginally attached and the people who are part-time employed, you get a number like 14.9 percent today," Mathur said.
Mathur added that is nearly double the official jobless rate. She says besides the problem of millions out of work or working less than they want, the current recession is keeping people out of jobs much longer than in previous recessions.
Four out of 10 unemployed people have been out of work for 27 weeks or longer, which hurts their chances of getting new jobs because their unused work skills deteriorate. Mathur says government programs that pay part of the cost of hiring the long-term unemployed have helped manage the jobless rate in other nations. She says Washington could also help businesses by reducing uncertainties about taxes and regulations that make them less willing to take risks on the investments that lead to job creation.
No matter how you help jobless people and measure the unemployment rate, the U.S. economy could encounter some problems in the next few months. Experts cite concerns about rising gasoline prices that could reduce spending on other goods, along with slower expansion in China or a downturn in Europe that could cut demand for U.S.-made exports.