Dramatic slowdown in job losses last month

You know the economy is still weak when a net loss of 1,600 jobs sounds pretty darn good. In May, the state had the smallest monthly job loss since last August. On average, employers have been dumping more than 10,000 jobs a month.

But for every bright spot like this new, smaller job loss number, officials offer a caveat.

"I won't be happy until we start adding jobs at a good clip."

"I won't be happy until we start adding jobs at a good clip. I'm glad the loss has slowed, but it's not good news yet," Dan McElroy, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development or DEED said.

He and other state officials say the latest job report is brimming with numbers that reflect some improvements.

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For example, the unemployment rate, now at 8.2 percent, is significantly lower than the national rate of 9.4 percent. This is the first time since summer of 2005 that that spread has been so wide in the state's favor. DEED labor market analyst Steve Hine said that likely means Minnesota's jobless rate won't follow the nation's into the mid ten-percent range over the next year. But, he said the economy is still very deep in the muck.

"Any way you slice it, 8.2 percent unemployment and job losses of 109,000 during this recession so far-- we're still in a weakened state," Hine said.

Hine points out that some sectors of the state economy are still suffering big job losses. Trade, Transportation, and Utilities, for example, shed about 7,000 jobs in May.

But Hine gets a little more enthusiastic when it comes to job gains in the construction industry. That's right, job gains. Construction has been hemorrhaging jobs for 2 years now. But in May, Hine said it added 900 workers, mostly in highway construction and specialty trades.

"In terms of early indications of whether the stimulus bill is having a big impact, that 900-job increase in construction, relative to what it's been through, is pretty big as well," he said.

DEED Commissioner Dan McElroy won't go that far. He said it's too soon to link the job growth in construction to the federal stimulus projects.

But state economist Tom Stinson said there's a likely connection. Stinson was traveling and could not be reached by phone, but in an e-mail he called the construction numbers encouraging and said he hopes to see the job gains continue in June, as the state's "paintbrush ready" repair and renovation capital budget activity gets underway.

Dave Semerad, the chief executive for the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, also said the stimulus package is making a difference.

"The money is out there, it's going to put some people to work," Semerad said. "It's going to create some opportunities for contractors that we would not have had otherwise."

But, Semerad laments that most of the stimulus project job gains affect highway construction workers. He said unemployment in other parts of the sector ranges from 30 to 50 percent. So, like state officials, he said there's still a long way to go.

"It's like you're losing a game ten to nothing in baseball and someone gets up and hits a homerun or two," he said. "It's a bright spot but you're still way behind, and it's going to be a while before we catch up."

That analogy also applies to job gains in the leisure and hospitality industry. The sector added a whopping 7,100 jobs in May. But even with the increase, the industry's employment still falls short of where it was last year.

And it's not like jobs in leisure and hospitality are easy to come by. That's the view of Ron Mazurowski, who lost his job as a citizenship teacher in St. Paul in May and is looking for work. He's 59 and worried about his job prospects, and is not having much luck, even in the growing hospitality industry.

"I think I can do a number of jobs, but right now in the recession, nobody wants to do any specific training for jobs," Mazurowski said. "So even in say, the hospitality field, working at the hotel front desk, they're all saying, 'well, we want experience. We don't want to teach anyone anything.'"

Skills are an issue, too, Mazurowski said. He's trying to work on his by boosting his typing rate.