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JOB GROWTH LIKELY TO HOLD STEADY

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Job growth in the United States should remain steady during the fourth quarter, despite what some analysts see as signs of a slowing economy, a survey says.

Milwaukee-based Manpower Inc. says its quarterly telephone survey of 15,000 businesses, released Monday, shows 26 percent plan to hire additional workers. Ten percent plan job cuts, 61 percent expect no change and 3 percent are uncertain.Fourth-quarter hiring projections are lower than the previous two quarters but better than the fourth quarter of last year, when 22 percent planned to add workers and 11 percent projected cuts. Employers in the Midwest and South are more optimistic than those in the Northeast and West, the survey says.

"The nation's job machine is now producing at a continuing and steady pace but it is still tempered by a concern for total labor costs in a very competitive pricing environment," said Manpower chief executive Mitchell S. Fromstein.

"This concern appears to be keeping job growth below the explosive rate historically associated with a protracted recovery."

Merrill Lynch & Co. senior economist Bruce Steinberg said the survey results are "consistent with what we're seeing in the economy - it continues to grow but not as rapidly as it was in the first half of the year."

One factor slowing the economy is rising interest rates, Steinberg said.

Another is uncertainty over the effect of proposed health-care reforms on businesses, said Raymond Worseck, chief economist with A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. in St. Louis.

"There's a great reluctance to hire people on a full-time basis if firms can possibly avoid it," Worseck said.

The survey by Manpower, a temporary help firm, looks at 10 sectors of the economy. The best job growth is projected in the wholesale and retail trades, where 36 percent of companies polled say they'll hire additional employees and only 8 percent foresee cuts. Manpower says that sector's outlook is the most optimistic in 16 years.

Executives in durable goods manufacturing - products like computers, appliances and automobiles - are also upbeat. Manpower says 30 percent of those firms intend to add workers and only 9 percent project cuts.

Most pessimistic is the mining sector, where only 11 percent of companies expect additional hiring while 14 percent plan cutbacks.

Geographically, confidence is highest in the Midwest for the third straight quarter, Manpower says. In fact, the region's overall job outlook is the best since 1978, with 28 percent of firms expecting to hire additional workers and 10 percent planning cuts.

"I think what we tend to do in the Midwest is stay on an even keel," Worseck said. "In the '80s, real estate and defense buoyed economies on the coasts. In the '90s, it's sort of giveback time."

The outlook in the Northeast lags behind the national average, with 21 percent of firms expecting to add staff and 11 percent projecting cuts.

"The Northeast has the highest cost structure of any part of the country and that will continue to hold it back," Steinberg said.