February 5th, 2010
06:42 PM GMT
New York - The latest jobs report provided more confusion than clarity about just where the U.S. economy is headed.
Twenty thousand more Americans found themselves out of a job in January. Over the course of this recession 8.4 million jobs have been lost - much more than originally thought. And it's a gigantic hole to climb out of.
But buried in the report were some rays of light. While overall payrolls dropped again, the number of temporary workers jumped and hours worked increased; two things that typically happen right before companies start hiring permanent workers.
Another reason for hope - the unemployment rate dropped to 9.7 percent.
Sure, some of that may be due to the fact that discouraged workers, people who have been out of work for an extended period of time, simply stopped looking.
But some economists say the household survey, which is used to calculate the unemployment rate, is better at picking up small business hiring and may be better at signaling a turn in the economy.
That is encouraging. But I can't help but worry that it is going to take a long time for the consumer to feel confident about jobs.
The severity and speed with which companies slashed workers in this last recession was a clear indication that employees are viewed as little more than a commodity.
I heard someone call it the evolution from just-in-time inventories to just-in-time firing.
Companies may be start to hire, but workers know they won’t think twice about letting them go the minute business dips or profit margins come under pressure.
This isn't completely new. Anyone who has worked in construction knows that when the project is completed it is time to look for work again.
But the approach seems to be spreading to the white collar world. Job security, to the extent it existed at all, seems to be dead.
And the unemployment rate will have to get a whole lot lower before managers worry that staff isn’t easily replaceable.
That worry is bound to weigh on consumers and impact their spending decisions. I guess it is what people mean when they talk about the new normal.
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