What we do on the job inevitably shapes who we are and how we live. This Labor Day weekend, NPR takes a moment to reflect on work, through three people who have found niches in the labor market. And while layoffs continue throughout the country, we look at how and why millions of Americans each month are finding new jobs.
It may seem surprising in an economy marked by layoffs and high unemployment, but millions of people are starting new jobs every month.
Sure, the workforce has gotten considerably smaller since the recession began, and that's why the jobless rate remains high — 9.7 percent in August.
But businesses hired about 3.8 million workers in June, according to the Labor Department's Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey.
University of Maryland economist John Haltiwanger, who studies the data, says that only about half that amount can be explained by the normal churn of workers moving in and out of jobs.
That means the other half represents businesses that have been doing well despite the recession. Those success stories, he says, can be found across business sectors and regions.
"Even in sectors where things are not going so well, there are some businesses that are expanding," Haltiwanger says. "We've been impressed by the idiosyncratic component of job creation."
To be sure, the 3.8 million hires-per-month figure is a shadow of what it was before the recession began in December 2007. Back then there were more than 5 million hires per month.
But, says Haltiwanger, "you could say whether businesses are hiring or firing actually depends more on how they're doing individually than how the aggregate economy is doing."
Signs of life in the economy include manufacturing industry growth reported in August as well as residential construction and sales gains posted in July.
Taking Your Skills Elsewhere
For the unemployed, the question is how to find the pockets of vitality in a climate that's still pretty discouraging.
Tom McGee, a vice president and general manager at executive search firm Lucas Group, has been seeing more activity recently in manufacturing, sales and information technology. He has some advice.
First, he says, would-be employees should examine their skill set to find out what might transfer well — with a few changes — from their former industry to a new one where prospects might be better.
Someone who had been in sales, for instance, may have learned a great deal about marketing, and a worker with Web skills may be able to move into an industry where the content is different but the technology is similar.
McGee says many recruiters will be happy to talk informally with people about applying their experience to a new type of job.
Next, he says, start networking as much as possible — in person rather than online, and with a positive attitude. To network well, he says, people should be open, rather than embarrassed about the fact that they're out of work. "You've got to let everybody in the world know," McGee says.
Eat Your Wheaties
Workers re-entering the labor force should be forewarned: They may find themselves working harder than they did before the economy lost all those jobs.
On Wednesday, the Labor Department reported the largest increase in productivity since 2003. That means the number of hours worked has fallen much more than what workers produce. So, those who remain employed are doing much more.
Also, it's a buyer's market for employers looking for high-quality workers.
Haltiwanger's colleague, R. Jason Faberman, notes that job vacancies have remained low for months. Employers are more cautious, and existing workers are reluctant to quit.
A low vacancy rate means there are few open jobs.
"In good times, the vacancy rate is over 3 percent," says Faberman, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Recent monthly figures have been under 2 percent.
If payrolls are thin, that's not necessarily a bad thing, according to McGee, whose firm has offices in several U.S. cities and Europe. He thinks workforces are trimmed back enough that opportunities for workers will quickly emerge when things improve.
He says Lucas Group recruiters found themselves with 27 new orders for employees in the past 2 1/2 weeks, a considerable increase in traffic.
"It's been a long time since we've seen a lot of job offers like that come across the Web," McGee says. Businesses, he says, "are so lean that if they land a sizable contract, they have to immediately hire."