COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE CHAMBERLIN

As working Americans feel more secure, economic factors still wavering

This weekend's celebration of working people came at a time when uncertainty continues to cloud the employment picture.

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation that designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day. According to the U.S. Census, there are 154.4 million people over the age of 16 that make up the nation's labor force. Of that group, 7.6 million hold down more than one job.

Unfortunately, the number of people looking for work continues to be much higher than most people, especially politicians, would like it to be.

A look at the jobs news reported last week points to a workforce that is still struggling to find upward momentum.

On Friday, the Labor Department reported that U.S. payrolls declined by 54,000 in August and the nation's unemployment rate rose to 9.6 percent. However, the details offered a glimmer of good news. All of the decline and more came as a result of a drop in government payrolls including the final phase out of census workers.

The good news in the Friday report was that private payrolls actually increased by 67,000, more than had been expected.

Equally frustrating is the fact that the number of people filing for unemployment benefits remains high. On Thursday, the Labor department said that 472,000 people made initial claims for jobless benefits. That was a drop of 6,000 from the previous week but still too high to suggest an improving employment picture.

But, there are signs that stability is not far away. On Wednesday, the outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas announced that planned job cuts by U.S. companies declined to 34,768, the lowest monthly total in more than a decade.

"Every other job market indicator seems to be stuck in first gear. In contrast, the layoff picture has improved so significantly that we are at pre-dot.com collapse levels when it comes to monthly job cut announcements," said John Challenger.

He points out that planned layoffs have not exceeded 100,000 for 15 consecutive months.

"If there is a double-dip recession on the horizon, either companies do not see it or they have no slack in their existing workforce. The recovery may indeed be stalling, but any slowdown is unlikely to lead to a resurgence in mass layoffs. Unfortunately, a slowing recovery could be met with further delays in much-needed hiring," said Challenger.

One local economist, Alan Gin from the University of San Diego, shares that attitude. Last week Gin released his San Diego Index of Leading Economic Indicators, which rose in July for the 16th consecutive month.

"With the local unemployment rate above 10 percent for 14 straight months and incomes for many households flat or declining, consumer confidence in the economy has fallen," said Gin.

He points out that many local businesses have streamlined their operations and, as a result, "some of the jobs lost will never come back and the lack of consumer spending is causing some businesses to be content with sitting on huge amounts of cash as opposed to hiring more workers."

Interestingly, a growing number of Americans say they are more confident about their employment situation today than they were a year ago.

A new report from online employment service SnagAJob.com -- its Labor Happiness Index -- finds that 40 percent of working Americans say they are feeling more secure in their job than a year ago. And, the number of Americans citing job insecurity has dropped to 35 percent from more than 50 percent in last year's study.

"Overall, employed Americans are breathing a bit easier at work because they've generally lost that sense that the other shoe is about to drop and they may be out of a job, assuming it hasn't happened already. However, some unease still exists because many Americans want to see more positive signs in the economy in order to be confident in a rebound," said CEO Shawn Boyer.

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