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96,000 New Jobs; Fewer Looking for Work

For Milwaukee's new Hilton Garden Inn, the timing couldn't have been better.

The 127-room hotel being carved out of the historic Loyalty Building at N. Broadway and E. Michigan St. is due to open Nov. 1, and it needs workers -- about 50 housekeepers, supervisors, desk clerks, cooks and other staff.

So last week the hotel held a job fair. Managers expected 100 to 200 applicants. They got more than 450.

"We had a phenomenal turnout," general manager Lisa Farrell said. "...It was a lot of people looking for jobs."

Good people, too, from the hotel's perspective. It's a nice pool from which the Hilton can draw as it makes its hiring decisions.

And it's a telling local indicator of a stubbornly sluggish economy -- the same economy that, nationwide, added a disappointing 96,000 jobs last month.

The Labor Department released the politically charged, election-year number Friday morning, dealing a blow to President Barack Obama and providing a weapon for his opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, with the election less than eight weeks off.

Reacting quickly, Obama sought to emphasize that employers have added jobs for 30 straight months but acknowledged the public frustration with an economy still struggling to recover from the worst recession in more than 70 years.

"We know it's not good enough," he said, dealing with the news mere hours after his confetti-flying Democratic National Convention. "We need to create more jobs, faster."

For Romney, the fact that the downbeat jobs report closely followed the convention was a campaign bonus.

"If last night was the party," the Republican candidate said in a statement, "this morning is the hangover."

Realities of the data

Lost in the fevered reaction is the fact that the August jobs numbers are preliminary and almost certainly will be revised -- perhaps up, perhaps down -- over the next two months.

Revisions trimmed 47,000 jobs from the gain originally announced for April, for example and added 32,000 to the gain originally reported for February.

In any event, the 96,000-job increase last month fell short of the 125,000 level economists had predicted. And while the unemployment rate decreased from 8.3% to 8.1%, that reflected discouraged workers who dropped out of the labor force and were no longer counted as officially unemployed.

"I'd classify it as anemic at best," Doug Fisher, director of Marquette University's Center for Supply Chain Management, said of the latest figure.

"Overall," said University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee economics professor John Heywood, "it's more evidence of an incredibly slow and painful recovery."

Two industries on opposite ends of the pay spectrum accounted for more than half of the August job growth.

Employment at restaurants and bars, a low-wage sector, increased by 28,000. That was almost matched by the 27,000 jobs gained in professional and technical services, where the average hourly wage tops $36.

The critical manufacturing sector, historically a key source of middle-class employment, shed 15,000 jobs.

That didn't surprise Greg Grambow, president of Du-Well Grinding, a small Menomonee Falls firm that makes machine parts for other manufacturers.

"We deal with a lot of companies and we're getting mixed signals," he said. "Some people are doing as well as they had been last year. Some people have slowed down. Very few people have sped up."

Another area job shop that depends on orders from manufacturers, Fabricated Metal Products, in Cudahy, has seen business flatten over the last two months after a strong start to the year.

"Manufacturing has softened a little bit, and we're seeing those signals from our customers," said David Lauer, president and chief financial officer of Fabricated Metal's corporate parent.

Michael Retzer, who is active in tool, die and machining trade groups, said firms in the field, which is crucial to precision manufacturing, are beset by uncertainty.

"We're scared," he said. "While we want to hire more, we're afraid of ramifications. We're afraid of a pending downturn, the negativity, the lack of growth out there, Obamacare. . . . So with all the perceived problems, we need orders in hand to really go out and hire is what I'm hearing from many of our members."

Strohwig Industries, the tooling and machining firm where Retzer is controller, is stepping carefully too and hasn't added many jobs in recent months. At the same time, the Richfield company now employs 190 people, up from 150 in early 2011.

Some are hiring

And stagnant as the economy is, it's not holding everyone back.

Reliable Plating Works and sister firm Elite Finishing, two south side shops that apply nickel and chrome coatings to metal parts, have added more than 40 jobs over the last several months, bringing combined employment to about 140.

"We've done very well this year," co-owner Jaime Maliszewski said.

But he said much of the firms' growth has come not because of a strengthening economy but because they've picked up business shed by other companies that have left or been forced out of plating.

"I feel like I'm winning at poker on the Titanic," Maliszewski said.

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