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It’s still a tough labor market, but the outlook is improving

By Robert Gavin
Globe Staff / September 12, 2010

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What a difference a year makes.

The state’s labor market has only begun to recover from a deep recession, but job seekers can look forward to prospects that are much improved from a year ago. Massachusetts is enjoying broad-based employment growth and its strongest economic recovery in nearly 30 years. Over the past six months, the state has added 60,000 jobs, easily outpacing the rate of national job growth and quickly regaining more than one-third of the nearly 170,000 jobs lost in the recent recession.

“The outlook is very encouraging,’’ said Joanne Goldstein, state secretary of Labor and Workforce Development. “We’re seeing it in the data, and anecdotally, we’re hearing more and more about people who are applying for jobs, getting call backs, interviews, and even jobs.’’

That, of course, is a dramatic improvement from 2009, when employers slashed jobs by the tens of thousands and the unemployment rate climbed more than 2 percentage points before peaking in January at 9.5 percent, a 33-year-high.

Since January, the state has added jobs every month. Private employment has grown at a 4 percent annual rate, about three times the national pace, while the state unemployment rate has declined to 9 percent — a half-point below the US average.

“There are people getting jobs, and job growth has been strong,’’ said Alan Clayton-Matthews, an economics professor at Northeastern University.

Massachusetts has been helped by an economy that depends more on technology, health care, and education, and less on construction, housing, and consumer goods, which were hardest hit in the recent recession. Although battered, the state’s key industries emerged from the downturn largely intact.

Education services, which includes colleges and universities, has experienced the strongest job growth over the past year, increasing employment by 7 percent, according to state statistics. Jobs in technology sectors expanded between 1 and 2 percent. Health care employment grew by about 1 percent. Hotel and restaurant employment increased by about 5 percent.

At Winter, Wyman Cos., a Waltham staffing firm, job orders have surged 77 percent from a year ago, with the strongest demand from the technology, pharmaceutical, and health science industries, said Scott Ragusa, president of the firm’s contract business. In a particularly hopeful sign, Ragusa added, companies are also seeking to hire recruiters.

Companies tend to hire recruiters only when they have several openings, Ragusa said, and orders to fill recruiting jobs have jumped more 60 percent since last summer.

“It’s definitely different than last year, when we were losing people faster than we were adding them,’’ said Ragusa. “It’s night and day.’’

Still, said Ragusa, many employers are hiring cautiously, concerned about the durability of the recovery. Over the past several weeks, the national economy has slowed considerably as the impact of federal stimulus programs has faded, and Massachusetts is likely to follow, according to economists.

Unemployment remains stubbornly high, both nationally and in Massachusetts.

Competition for jobs is also fierce, especially in hard-hit industries such as manufacturing, construction, and retail, said Clayton-Matthews, the Northeastern professor. Even though these sectors have rebounded in recent months, there are still far more unemployed workers than jobs.

Massachusetts construction firms, for example, shed 35,000 jobs, or about one in four, during the recession. So far, the sector as regained fewer than 7,000 jobs, while unemployment in many building trades remains above 20 percent.

Continuing decadeslong trends, said Clayton-Matthews, the greatest job opportunities will come in technology- and knowledge-based industries that demand higher levels of education and skills. But Goldstein, the state labor secretary, stressed that these industries not only need scientists and engineers, but also support staff.

“The PhD in biochemistry still needs someone to work in the lab, order equipment, and run the computer,’’ said Goldstein.

Many of these jobs require skills and education beyond high school, Goldstein said, and many job seekers might benefit from additional education and training through university, community college, and other programs. Information about such programs is available at the One-Stop Career Centers throughout the state.

Despite the improved outlook, Goldstein acknowledged that the labor market remains tough. She urged job seekers to use all resources available, include career centers, support groups, and professional networks. Most important, she said, “Have hope and determination.’’

Robert Gavin can be reached at rgavin@globe.com.