Construction workers added to the job surge in February as the economy showed broad-based recovery and pushed down the unemployment rate to its lowest level in four years.
Employment made a surprising jump, adding 236,000 jobs and lowering the unemployment rate 0.2 percentage points to 7.7 percent, the Labor Department reported Friday. Almost all sectors of the workforce added jobs last month except the government.
“We’ve got a recovery,” said Mark Vitner, senior economist for the Wells Fargo Economics Group. “It’s not spectacular, but we have a real recovery that looks like it’s going got be fairly durable.”
And Florida, California and Texas are moving into leading positions for the recovery, he said, though much of Florida and California’s improvements are exaggerated by the depth of their fall.
“In Florida’s case, it seems to me the state is coming back stronger,” Vitner said. While traditional, low-paying sectors like leisure and health care have led job gains, “we’ve been plugging away at bringing R&D jobs.”
However, the unemployment rate drop was also influenced by the 130,000 people who left the labor force, and January figures were revised down by 38,000. The employment picture has had a steep divide — those who are college educated and held onto their jobs feel the recovery, and those who are low wage or older and unemployed have spent months and all of their savings looking for work.
“I’ve been trying to get back in the work force for some time,” said Donna Sanders of Loxahatchee.
After two years of looking for customer service jobs or office work, Sanders said she is getting help from Workforce Alliance, an agency chartered by the state for job training and employment services.
“I’m very hopeful with that, but no job yet,” said Sanders, who was at the JOB News job fair in West Palm Beach this week.
“There’s so many people unemployed,” said James Jones, 31, of Riviera Beach, filling out an application at a nearby table. He’s been looking for a permanent, full-time job for two years.
University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith said the unemployment numbers tell a mixed message. A broader measure of unemployment is at 14.3 percent and includes those reluctantly working part-time and people who have given up looking but want a job.
In his U.S. forecast issued Friday, Snaith predicted job growth will remain sluggish through this year and regain pre-recession employment levels by the third quarter of next year.
Nationally, the surge in February was led by professional and business services with 73,000 jobs created. Health care and leisure and hospitality jobs have steadily increase since the recession.
Another big winner was construction with 48,000 new jobs, a sign perhaps that the recovering housing market will begin to make up some of the lost employment.
Fewer than 200,000 jobs had been created in the past three months on average, so the boost was a welcome change. The economy has recovered slowly, with monthly job growth barely staying above population increases. At times the unemployment rate has gone down largely because people have left the workforce, and the participation rate is still far worse than before the recession.
Still, 40 percent of those who are unemployed have been without a job for more than six months and a quarter more than a year, Labor Department figures show.
More people were employed in February than in the past three months, but fewer people were participating in the labor force than last month. The participation rate bumped down to a 30-year low, Rollins College economist Bill Seyfried said in his blog Economics without an Agenda.
“Given the weakness in January, the job market is not signaling a robust economy, but an economy that continues to move forward,” he said.
Jim Kissel, managing director of Management Recruiters of the Northern Palm Beaches, said few of the companies he works with were hiring in late 2012. But things have picked up this year.
He regularly gets resumes from people desperate for a job, including many older workers who lost management positions and people who are leaving the military.
“These people are frustrated,” he said. “They just want to get back to work.”
On a positive note, Kissel said he is seeing top managers who delayed retirement when the recession and housing bust decimated their portfolios began to consider the prospect.
Economists warn that government policies like sequestration and the return of full payroll taxes will continue to drag down the recovery.
Sequestration could shave 400,000 to 750,000 jobs off the payroll — predications vary. And cuts are expected to worker training programs and federal unemployment benefits.
Job growth in February
Total nonfarm 236,000
Retail trade 23,700
Transportation and warehousing -1,300
Financial activities 7,000
Professional and business services 73,000
Education and health services 24,000
Leisure and hospitality 24,000
Source: Labor Department