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Weak job growth puts brakes on steady recovery

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The new data confounded expectations, spurred by the April report, that the job market might finally be taking off and many of the nation's 15 million unemployed people could soon get back to work.

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Forecasters had been encouraged by gains in economic indicators -- including business surveys, retail sales reports and measures of industrial output measures -- and expected to see accelerating job growth as well. They were wrong.

There had been some ominous signs recently. The number of people filing new claims for jobless benefits showed a surprising spike in early May and the weekly claims number has hovered at levels of the beginning of the year, showing that the employment picture is improving at a glacial pace.

Still, some details in the Friday report were good news. For example, both the length of the average workweek and hourly wages rose, pushing average weekly earnings up $4.60, or 0.6 percent, to $772 a week.

And people who deal with corporate hiring decisions say business confidence is gradually returning.

"A year ago, the focus was definitely still on cost-cutting," said Scot Melland, chief executive of Dice Holdings, an online recruiting company that works with clients in technology, engineering and financial fields. "Now most companies are confident enough in their business prospects to start hiring full time, even though the mood is still cautious."

Even if the May number is an aberration and private-sector job growth is proceeding steadily, there are no signs of the kind of acceleration that would bring down the unemployment rate soon.

That has significant consequences. The number of long-term unemployed -- people who have been jobless for more than six months -- continued its long upward march, with 47,000 more people fitting in that category. The number of long-term unemployed has risen by 2.7 million over the past year.

Nolan Settles, 31, of Southeast Washington, is one of them. He's been laid off from his construction job for 15 months and has spent the last of his savings and had to reach out to friends and family for financial help.

"Right now, I'd take anything," Settles said Friday afternoon on a break from a jobs training class in Southeast. He said he's eating out less and buying fewer new clothes and has stopped treating friends to things. He said he's applied for at least 10 jobs in the past month, including at grocery stores and fast-food joints, and hasn't heard back. "It's tough out there," he said.

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