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The bad news in the good jobs numbers

October 7, 2011: 11:37 AM ET

It's easy to beat expectations when expectations are low.

jobsFORTUNE – Today's report on the state of the U.S. jobs market is better than most expected. But while there's no hint that another recession is brewing, the economy still has – well, a case of the blahs.

The unemployment rate stayed at a high 9.1%, with the economy adding 103,000 jobs in September, the U.S. Labor Department said Friday. That's somewhat better than the revised 57,000 jobs added the previous month, but the latest report comes on the heels of disappointing economic data on consumer confidence and the house market. Needless to say, Europe's debt crisis continues to unnerve investors as many worry that bad debts and the possibility of defaults could send ripples across the global financial system.

And while the private sector in September added 137,000 jobs, a bulk of that -- 45,000 jobs -- reflected Verizon (VZ) workers returning to work after having been on strike. Health care continued being the strongest sector adding jobs, but manufacturing – which initially drove the economic recovery  – appears to have only continued losing more steam. Employment has been essentially flat for the past two months.

U.S. manufacturing slowdown: 4 cities at most risk

Perhaps even worse, the unemployment rate actually rose to 16.5% -- the highest rate this year -- if you include those who are working part-time because they cannot find full-time jobs and those who are too discouraged to keep looking for work.

And what make this economic recovery different from those of previous recessions are deep cuts in government jobs. While layoffs in the private sector have held steady, cash-strapped governments have continued to slash headcount. In September, local governments shed 35,000 jobs including 24,4000 in pubic education.

There's a bit of data that would suggest some good news – albeit, only a hint. Average weekly work hours rose slightly, while temporary help services added 19,400 jobs. Temp jobs tend to rise before companies start hiring more, but it remains to be see how this will pan out as Europe's debt crisis could weigh heavily on consumers globally.

New York Times reporter Motoko Rich asked readers today what to call a period where the economy isn't exactly shrinking but only struggling to stay in place.

Recovery? Epsilon? Technical terms aside, we might all just belt in unison: Blah …

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About This Author
Nin-Hai Tseng
Nin-Hai Tseng
Writer, Fortune

Nin-Hai Tseng covers economics and finance. Before joining Fortune, Tseng was a reporter at The Orlando Sentinel and a public affairs associate at GE. She holds an MPA from Columbia University and a BS in Journalism from the University of Florida. She lives in New York City.

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