Recovery: Real or Surreal?

Employment numbers are generally looking better. Let’s hope they lead to a sustainable rebound.
By Michael Beygelman
December is a month in which a number of people reflect on the events that shaped our lives, our jobs, our economy, our world.  The month is filled with holidays that make it possible for some of us to spend more money than we should, while retrospective moments move others to make resolutions for the year to come.  The gift that one out of 10 Americans might wish most for this year is a new job, because November marked a dip in our national unemployment rate to just about 10 percent.  In the month of November non-farm payroll was basically unchanged (11,000 lost jobs), which is great news, considering the prior three- month’s payroll job losses averaged 135,000 per month.
Dissecting some regional data:
• The largest over-the-month increase in employment occurred in Texas (+41,700), followed by Michigan (+38,600), California (+25,700), North Carolina (+12,100), and Pennsylvania (+10,600).
• Michigan experienced the largest over-the-month percentage increase in employment (+1.0 percent), followed by the District of Columbia (+0.8 percent), Montana (+0.7 percent),and  Oklahoma (+0.6 percent).
• The largest over-the-month decrease in employment occurred in New York (-15,300), followed by Florida (-8,500), Georgia (-7,500), Virginia (-7,100), and South Carolina (-5,800).
• Wyoming (-0.9 percent) experienced the largest over-the-month percentage decrease in employment, followed by Idaho and Nevada (-0.4 percent each), and South Carolina (-0.3 percent).
Manufacturing was the hardest hit industry in November, followed by construction. Unemployment rates continued to vary across education levels, ranging from 15 percent for people without a high school diploma, to 4.9 percent for college (or beyond college) graduates.  In November the average work week increased by .2 hours, and the average hourly earnings of production and non-supervisory workers on private non-farm payrolls edged up by 1 cent, or 0.1 percent, to $18.74. During the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have risen by 2.2 percent, while average weekly earnings have risen by 1.6 percent.
A better indication of where this economy is headed could be gleaned from this holiday season’s retail sales.  Retailers moved $10.66 billion worth of goods on the Friday after Thanksgiving, which is up 0.5 percent from a year ago according to ShopperTrak.  Regionally, the firm said year-over-year Black Friday sales rose 4.7 percent in the West, increased 1.3 percent in the Midwest, edged up 0.6 percent in the South, but declined 4.9 percent in the Northeast, where rain soaked many sections.
We can gain additional insights into consumer sentiment by examining what we’re putting on our holiday wish lists.  The hottest products of the season are iPod’s, gaming consoles, a whole host of other electronic gadgets and flat panel TV’s, while clothing and apparel sales are less impressive.  If one out of 10 Americans are unemployed, where are we getting the money to buy all these things?  Many will use credit cards this Holiday season but will have a hard time paying the bills when they come due next year so we might see some consumer credit challenges in the first half of 2010.
We live during interesting economic times. Although unemployment is relatively high nationwide, some regions have felt little impact while others have been hammered.  The same can be said about the type of work impacted versus the type of positions that remain unfilled.  The government is spending unimaginable sums of money to buoy our economy while consumers are spending billions of dollars buying feel-good gadgets.
All of these macro issues affect organizational hiring forecasts for 2010, which seem to be more optimistic.  The challenge is that we as a nation will never return back to the employment levels that we once enjoyed, because we have simply become more productive; we have proven that we can get more work done with fewer resources.  Sought after skills will continue to be in demand in 2010 just as they were in 2009—albeit even more—while other types of jobs might forever fade into the sunset and cease to exist altogether. 
If current levels of spending have not been artificially generated as a result of government stimulus, then we should all be optimistic.  However, if we’re living in a government-inflated economic bubble, then we need to be cautious, if not  outright concerned. Organizations can’t rush back to business as usual, and job seekers can’t assume that overnight the market will be flooded with new jobs.  We need to assume it will take us years to systemically fix our economy, and we need to remain fiscally prudent.  The good news is we’re finally starting to see some optimism. Let’s monitor the data to see if we’re at the beginning of an economic recovery or just living through a good start of a holiday shopping season. 
Michael Beygelman is SVP, business development, with Adecco Group North America. He can be reached at

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