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Whiff of optimism draws out job seekers

A sign at a job fair in Colonie, N.Y., last month. Companies are hiring steadily but cautiously, data show.

Mike Groll/Associated Press

A sign at a job fair in Colonie, N.Y., last month. Companies are hiring steadily but cautiously, data show.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans, among them many who had given up during bleaker economic times, are again looking for work as they perceive improving job prospects in a slowly strengthening recovery, economists said.

Nearly 1 million people have reentered the labor market since September, a trend that contributed to the slight rise in the unemployment rate last month, to 7.9 percent, the US Labor Department reported Friday. While no one welcomes an increase in the jobless rate, economists said a growing labor force is a component of a healthy job market.

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Generally, when workers believe that the economy is generating jobs and their chances of finding work are improving, they come off the sidelines to search. Only those who actively seek work are counted in the labor force, and their ranks had declined significantly after the economy seemed to stall in the spring. Now many are back in the hunt.

“In a normal recovery, that’s part of the process — people start to smell jobs and come into the workforce,” said Harvard University economics professor Kenneth Rogoff. “A big influx of workers into the labor force, which we have seen for a couple months in a row now, is a sign there are jobs out there.”

Dorchester resident Francisco Felix is among those resuming the search. He spent much of the last year at home caring for his young baby. But on Friday, the 46-year-old searched the job listings at Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries’ job center in Boston, optimistic that he would find retail work.

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“This time of year is always good for companies and hiring because they’re making more sales and people are buying more things,” he said. “So right now is a really good time to look.”

Hiring has picked up recently. The Labor Department reported Friday that US employers added 171,000 jobs in October, and gained 84,000 more jobs in September and August than previously estimated. Since July, the nation added an average of about 170,000 jobs a month, compared to about 70,000 a month from April to June.

There have been other encouraging signs, too. The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index rose to 72.2 last week, its highest reading since February 2008, and consumer spending, which drives the US economy, rose in the past three months. The Institute for Supply Management, a private trade group, said its index of factory activity shows the manufacturing sector is expanding. Manufacturing added 13,000 jobs last month, according to the Labor Department.

Greg Revill, 55, of Salem, closed his last video store last summer and is back in the job market for the first time in 22 years. After a few months of “practice” job seeking online, mainly for retail and administrative work, he recently ramped up his search by looking into temp jobs.

“I finally got a call back,” he said. “And that just does wonders for my frame of mind.”

Still, job creation is far from booming and the uptick in unemployment is an indication that the economy did not generate enough jobs in October to absorb the influx of job seekers.

More than 5 million Americans have been unemployed for at least six months; about 2.5 million of those people have been unemployed for more than a year. Whether they can get jobs remains to be seen, said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project in New York. The longer a person is unemployed, the more outdated skills become.

“We still have a deep jobs hole,” Owens said. “We lost millions of jobs, and we still have millions who are looking for jobs and can’t find them.”

But what is also important to consider is job growth has outpaced the increase in the labor force in recent months, said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist for PNC Financial Services Group of Pittsburgh. Although the unemployment rate rose in the last month, it is down nearly a half-point since July.

Hoffman characterized recent trends this way: “When people are thinking better thoughts about the economy, they’re more inclined to look for a job and think there’s a good chance of finding one. They’re hopeful and they’re looking again.”

Krista Persechini of Roslindale left the workforce in 2008 to stay home with her daughter, Kaylee. Persechini started sending out resumes last year, but she got serious about her job search in September. After she visited the staffing firm Hollister Inc., the company hired her as a part-time billing administrator.

“I went in to be a temp and just wound up working for the temp agency,” Persechini said.

Yet the 34-year-old said she knows it is not that easy for everyone. Her husband, a former restaurant manager, has been laid off twice this year and is now working as a part-time pizza cook. To make ends meet, Persechini and her family, as well as her sister and her family, all live in their mother’s two-family house in Roslindale.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@
globe.com
. Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@
globe.com.
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