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Jobs data may not be as bad as they look

/ Source: The Associated Press

Trying to hire an engineer near San Francisco? Then the job market looks robust. If you're a factory worker in Ohio, it looks dismal.

The latest payroll figures, released Friday by the Department of Labor, look immediately depressing, but there's disagreement about what they show — and whether they'll change drastically when they're revised later this month.

Employers cut 17,000 jobs in January, according to initial payroll figures from the Department of Labor. The data is based on a survey of companies around the country, but the smallest companies, which are usually the first to hire in an upturn and the fastest to lay off workers in a downturn, often miss the deadline for the initial totals. That's why late-month revisions are the rule.

If the job-loss figure stands, this will be the first time payrolls have shrunk in more than four years. But the same headlines ran in September, when August payroll figures initially showed a loss of 4,000 jobs. The data was later revised to show a gain of 89,000 jobs.

Those revisions are why Eugenio J. Alemn, the senior economist at Wells Fargo, calls the payroll figures "highly dubious." When the numbers are revised "we could easily have January net employment being either minus 150,000 or plus 150,000. Stay tuned," he said.

Compared with the huge number of people in the total labor force — 153.2 million workers — the 17,000 job reduction is tiny. That's why the Bureau of Labor Statistics, describing Friday's payroll number, called it "essentially unchanged."

Rough draft or not, Friday's data are just the latest indication that the economy has dipped into recession, said Bernard Baumohl, director of the Economic Outlook Group.

"For most Americans, whether the economy grows at plus-one percent or minus-one percent, they won't be able to tell the difference," he said. "It's still going to feel awful."

The economy also looks vastly different depending on what slice you're viewing — and where.

While health care and food service jobs grew, construction jobs have dropped by 284,000 since that sector's 2006 peak. The financial sector is down 99,000 jobs for roughly the same period. Manufacturing has lost 269,000 jobs over the past 12 months.

Peter Csathy, CEO of SightSpeed Inc., is trying to hire five engineers, two marketing managers and three salespeople for the 25-person internet-video company, based in Berkeley, Calif. The engineering jobs are the most challenging to fill, he said. "The Bay Area is a very competitive market," he said.

Insurer Aflac Inc. expects to add 300 to 400 jobs in finance, information technology, human resources and marketing, said spokeswoman Laura Kane. Most of the new jobs will be at the company's Columbus, Ga., headquarters.

By contrast, Dell Inc. said Friday it would lay off 900 call center workers in Canada. Meanwhile, the owners of a drinking glass plant in Sapulpa, Okla. announced they would shut the plant by June, cutting 400 jobs and Fidelity Investments said it would lay off 250 workers.

The split in the economy shows up even within industries. At trade magazine Plastics News, managing editor Don Loepp juggles reports about vinyl siding factories shutting and news about startups that make blades for wind turbines.

"There are people still investing," he said. "It really depends on what market you're in, who your customers are."

It also depends on the company's financial condition pre-downturn, he said. "If you have too much debt, if you made bad acquisitions or you paid too much for them, if a slowdown in the economy occurs, they're the first to get in trouble."