Job boost isn't as good as it seems

WASHINGTON — Despite the surprising drop in the unemployment rate to 7.7 percent and job growth reported for February, a lot of people looking for work probably wouldn't agree that the employment market is looking much better.

They have a point: To a large extent, the labor market improvement has to do more with companies not cutting back staff than actually stepping up their hiring.

Take the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly survey of job openings and labor turnover. In January, the layoff rate nationwide inched down to 1.1 percent, falling to a level matched only one other time in the past 12 years for which the data are available.

In a separate report Tuesday, Manpower's quarterly employment outlook showed this trend was likely to persist: Only 5 percent of the employers it surveyed nationwide said they anticipated staff reductions in the second quarter of this year — the smallest percentage since the third quarter of 2000.

In other words, if you're employed today, you're less likely to get laid off than in recent years past because many employers are operating at bare-bones levels. But that doesn't mean they are hiring much.

The BLS survey for January found that the number of job openings improved modestly in January, to 3.69 million from 3.61 million in December. The hire rate held at 3.1 percent, not much different from previous months.

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