— For millions of Americans, the prospects for getting a job are a whole lot worse than Friday's reported 8.9 percent unemployment rate.
Or a whole lot better. It all depends on where you live, what kind of job you're looking for and what kind of skills and education you bring with you.
The latest monthly jobs data offered a fairly upbeat outlook for the more than 14 million workers who remain sidelined by one of the slowest economic recoveries since the Great Depression. Employers added 192,000 jobs in February — the biggest jump since mid-2010 and the latest sign that the nation’s employment picture is set to brighten this year. That helped nudge the unemployment rate down to 8.9 percent, a two-year low, down from 9 percent in January.
But that single data point — widely seen as a barometer for the job prospects of American workers — masks a much fuller story of wide variations in employment opportunity for workers with wide variations in skills and training looking for work in thousands of different occupations.
"Certain sectors are doing very, very well — manufacturing, the service sector is finally turning the corner," said Julia Coronado, chief economist at BNP Paribas. "On the other hand, sectors like state and local governments continue to be a drag on (the economy), subtracting from job growth."
Friday's data confirmed a pick-up in manufacturing and a brighter job outlook for factory workers after a long, bleak stretch since the Great Recession began. Manufacturers added 33,000 more jobs than they cut in February. That brought the total net gains to 195,000 in a little over a year.
The construction industry hired back 33,000 jobless workers in February, after a drop of 22,000 during storm-battered January. Transportation and warehouse jobs rose by 22,000. Health care continued hiring, adding 34,000 jobs last month. Over the past year, some 260,000 new health care jobs have been created, roughly 22,000 jobs a month.
If you're looking for a job with state and local government — think teachers, police officers, sanitation workers, etc. — your prospects continue to worsen. Budget cuts eliminated another 30,000 state and local government jobs in February. Since peaking in Sept., 2008, local governments have cut 377,000 more jobs than they created.
Even within sectors, those net job gains or losses mask wider transitions, as hundreds of thousands of jobs are eliminated by some employers and replaced by new jobs created by others. As that happens, the skills required for the last job created may be very different than those needed for the last job eliminated.
Education, education, education
That's why, of all the factors that helps determine the odds of getting a job, education remains the biggest single variable in a wide range of prospects for job seekers.
Friday's jobs report pegged the jobless rate for college graduates at 5.0 percent - compared to 17.9 percent for job seekers without a high school degree. For high school grads, the jobless rate stood at 11.9 percent; for those with some college or a two-year degree, the rate was 8.4 percent.
Prospects for unskilled workers in most fields will continue to diminish as employers work relentlessly to increase productivity by investing in technology. On the other hand, in some specialized fields like engineering, employers can't find enough qualified candidates to fill job openings.
The skills shortage has a number of causes - from immigration policies to the U.S. education system, according to Gautam Godhwani, CEO of Simply Hired, an online job search engine. But he said that unless that skills gap is addressed, the jobless rate for low-skilled American workers will remain stubbornly high.
"It's very clear that the U.S. is dramatically far behind in both math in science, which is the underpinning of the next generation of significant number of jobs across all industries as technology permeates all of them," he said. "We have a lot of work as a country to make that up."
Education isn't the only factor that accounts for the wide range of job prospects from bleak to bright. The focus on a single, national jobless rate also overlooks big differences in the balance between supply and demand for different occupations.
Demand for computer and science workers rose by 9,500 last month, to 584,800, according to the Conference Board, which tracks online help wanted ads. That amounts to more than three ads for every qualified worker. The biggest demand was for systems analysts, Web developers and software engineers.
Sales people were also in bigger demand last month, along with gains in openings for managers in marketing, finance and health care. Job openings for drivers, pilots and transportation workers have more than doubled in the past 12 months.
Location, location, location
And a lot depends on where you're looking. Just as different regions of the country have fared better or worse during the recession, the odds of finding a job depend heavily on where you live.
With travel and tourism still struggling to shake off a steep slide during the recession, for example, southern Florida is one of the toughest places to find a job, according to a review by SimplyHired of millions of job listings. In the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale market, there was just one job opening for every nine people out of work.
In California, big state budget cuts have brought big job cuts in the state capitol, Sacramento, where there are seven unemployed workers for every job opening. Other cities with high ratios of jobless workers to job openings include Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla.
By contrast, the ratio of job seekers to job openings is a lot more favorable for workers in Washington, D.C., where there are as many job openings listed as there are unemployed workers. Other cities with favorable ratios for workers include San Francisco, Minneapolis, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Boston, Baltimore, and West Palm Beach, Fla.
But relocating may not be an option for millions of unemployed Americans. With home prices still falling in many regions, many homeowners can't move because they can't afford to sell their house. More than one in five homeowners owes more than their home is worth, which means they would have to come up with the cash to pay off the difference, or find a renter to cover the cost of the mortgage.