By PAUL WISEMAN, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Month by month, the U.S. job market is regaining its health.
So many jobs are being added that the unemployment rate has dropped for five straight months. At 8.3 percent, it's at a three-year low.
Whether the job market actually feels stronger, though, depends on your perspective.
The headline numbers mask vast disparities — from the New Yorker thrilled to have found a catering job to the Indianapolis truck driver forced to take a 40 percent pay cut to work again.
Even where hiring has picked up, scars from the Great Recession remain. In Fort Madison, Iowa, Pinnacle Foods Group is expanding a canned-meat plant and adding 65 jobs. Yet that same work used to be done at a company plant in Tacoma, Wash., that once employed 160 but has since closed.
A government report Friday that employers added a surprising 243,000 jobs in January ignited cheers for the job market, which had been slow to recover in the 2½ years since the recession officially ended. Many economists see signs of a self-fulfilling "virtuous cycle," in which more jobs fuel more consumer spending, which sparks further hiring and spending and more jobs.
The presidential election is sure to be determined, in part, by how Americans interpret the shifts in the job market.
Here's how things look to employers, job seekers and analysts with varying views of the job market:
— THE RELIEVED AND THE HOPEFUL
Robb Stiffler landed a job two weeks ago at Crown College, a liberal arts college in St. Bonifacius, Minn. He makes sure rooms are available and set up for school events. Stiffler used to run his own company selling paint sprayers. But the housing bust put him out of business.
Then, in nine months in real estate, he sold one house. At first, he lived off his credit cards. Then it was unemployment benefits.
He was elated to get the Crown job, his first to provide a retirement plan. Unemployment, he says, "was agony."
Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. is opening a plant in Galax, Va., near the North Carolina border. It expects to hire 50 workers by July and perhaps 65 more over the next year or two.
January's buoyant national job numbers "play right into what we have already sensed and begun to act on," says Doug Bassett, the chief operating officer.
The company's revenue has risen 20 percent in the past two months compared with the same period a year earlier. Vaughan-Bassett credits an improving economy, rising interest in U.S.-made products and higher prices on Chinese imports it competes with.
Across the country, Ancestry.com, which helps track family lineage, expects to add 150 employees this year — if it can find them.
The company, based in Provo, Utah, must compete with technology firms for engineers with expertise in artificial intelligence and in handling mountains of data (30 million family trees in Ancestry's case).
"It's only gotten harder" to find qualified applicants as the job market has improved, says Eric Shoup, senior vice president. "The likes of Google, Zynga, Facebook and others are also growing. They are soaking these people up."
James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, says the stock market's celebration of Friday's jobs report was another step in reversing Americans' economic pessimism.
"For me, the takeaway isn't so much about the healing of the job market as it is about the beginning of an attitude adjustment for this country," Paulsen said.
Michael Biggers of Brooklyn, N.Y., was happy to land a job recently at a catering company.
The job hunt took four months. Unemployment benefits helped pay the bills. And his four kids, ages 3 to 12, loved having him home. Biggers, 32, just wishes he didn't have to apply for jobs online.
"I feel like I would have found something faster if I met with a person face to face," Biggers says. "I'm just confident about me."
Perhaps no one has more reason to applaud the improving job numbers than President Barack Obama. His re-election hopes rest heavily on whether most voters will agree that the economy has improved on his watch.