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Good News on Unemployment, With One Ominous Sign

So it's hard not to like today's unemployment report: the economy only lost 11,000 jobs in November, a number so small the Labor Department considers the employment level "essentially unchanged" from October. That's after shedding an average of 135,000 jobs in each of the previous three months. And even that 135,000 figure looks better than it used to. The September and October payroll reports, which had prompted a lot of hand-wringing in Washington, were revised downward from -219,000 to -139,000 and -190,000 to -111,000, respectively. The unemployment rate, which falls out of a different survey (households rather than employers), ticked down to 10.0 percent from 10.2.

Not surprisingly, temporary help services accounted for the biggest source of job growth--52,000--which typically happens at the early stage of a recovery. Even more encouraging is the fact that temp services employment really accelerated, suggesting a lot of companies need workers even if they're not prepared to bring them on full time yet. That 52,000-job increase was almost half of the 117,000 increase in temp agency employment since July. (These employees technically work for the temp agencies and are basically rented out to various companies.)

There is one ominous note from today's report, though: Long-term unemployment. Last month I noted that the number of long-term unemployed--people out of work 27 weeks or longer--was increasing at a decreasing rate and looked like it might be about to peak. That was key because, as I explained in this post, a peak in long-term unemployment fairly soon after a recession has historically foreshadowed a "jobful" rather than a "jobless" recovery.

Unfortunately, the number of people unemployed for 27-plus weeks shot up again pretty sharply last month: up 293,000 versus only 156,000 in October. That could obviously be a one-off blip. But if not, and if it means what it's historically meant, it could be a while before we start seeing real job growth.

P.S. Just in case there's any doubt about how today's news went down in the White House, Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Christina Romer has just released a pretty bullish statement.