The nation's overall unemployment rate edged down to 7.2% in February, the Labor Department said Friday, but analysts were concerned about the steep slide in employment in industries vulnerable to competition from imports.
Last month's overall jobless rate was down a tenth of a percentage point from January. But joblessness increased by 137,000 in the goods-producing sector of the economy, including 82,000 in manufacturing, preliminary figures by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed.
On the positive side, nearly 300,000 new jobs were created in February, 85% of them in the service sector, prompting White House spokesman Larry Speakes to declare that "the economy is creating jobs in record numbers."
However, the number of unemployed totaled 8.4 million last month, down just 85,000 from January. The jobless rate has been stuck in a narrow range from 7.1% to 7.5% since last May.
"While unemployment as a whole is caught in a holding pattern, this conceals the fact that manufacturing employment is now falling," to 19.7 million in February, Jerry Jasinowski, an economist for the National Assn. of Manufacturers, said.
"Because of the strong dollar, imports are driving a tremendous wedge between the demand side and the supply side of the economy," said Edward Yardeni, chief economist at Prudential-Bache Securities.
This could mean an uptick in the jobless rate as early as next month, Yardeni said, adding that "it's unlikely that demand will stay vigorous in an economy that is increasingly suffering on the production side because imports are gaining a bigger share of the market."
The United States suffered a $10.3-billion trade deficit in January and posted a record deficit of $123.3 billion 1984.
Meanwhile, the length of the average workweek for production workers in February fell 36 minutes to 40 hours on a seasonally adjusted basis, a development that Sandra Shaber, an analyst with Chase Econometrics, said could bode ill for consumer spending because it would hold down wages.
February's jobless figures showed that the number of Americans holding jobs rose to a record 106.7 million and the proportion of the civilian population holding jobs climbed to 60.1%, equaling the record high of December, 1979.
Growth in Labor Force
"The reason that the unemployment rate has gotten stuck in the low sevens is that the growth in the labor force has been quite strong over the last year," said John M. Albertine, president of the American Business Conference. "When people are optimistic, they rush into the labor force and can mask the effects of rising employment."
But the small decline in the number of unemployed in February demonstrates that the economy is "making no new progress for the 8.4 million people who want work but cannot find it," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the congressional Joint Economic Committee.
Undersecretary of Labor Ford B. Ford said that the economy has created 7.5 million jobs since the end of the recession in late 1982. But the manufacturing sector lost 2.3 million jobs during the 1981-82 recession and has gained back only 1.7 million of them, according to figures supplied by Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Fewer Steel Jobs
The figures show also that the steel industry, now employing 319,000, lost 170,000 jobs during the recession and an additional 25,000 while the rest of the economy was in recovery. The textile industry also has continued to lose jobs since the recession ended and now employs 720,000, down from a pre-recession peak of 835,000, according to the bureau.
The report showed these unemployment rates for February: adult men, 6.3%, unchanged; adult women, 6.7%, down from 6.8%; teen-agers, 18.4%, down from 18.9%; whites, 6.2%, down from 6.4%; blacks, 16.3%, up from 14.9%; and Latinos, 9.7%, down from 10.6%.
The overall unemployment rate includes both the 115.1-million-member civilian labor force and the roughly 1.7 million members of the armed forces stationed in the United States. An alternative rate, which does not include the military, fell to 7.3% from 7.4% in February.