That's been the biggest problem — just not knowing what tomorrow was going to bring. So we've been kind of afraid to make any major changes. —Greg Bires, Windsor Jewelry
WASHINGTON — Month by month, the U.S. job market is regaining its health.
So many jobs are being added that the unemployment rate has dropped for five straight months. At 8.3 percent, it's at a three-year low.
Whether the job market actually feels stronger, though, depends on your perspective.
The headline numbers mask vast disparities — from the New Yorker thrilled to have found a catering job to the Indianapolis truck driver forced to take a 40 percent pay cut to work again.
Even where hiring has picked up, scars from the Great Recession remain. In Fort Madison, Iowa, Pinnacle Foods Group is expanding a canned-meat plant and adding 65 jobs. Yet that same work used to be done at a company plant in Tacoma, Wash., that once employed 160 but has since closed.
A government report Friday that employers added a surprising 243,000 jobs in January ignited cheers for the job market, which had been slow to recover in the 2½ years since the recession officially ended. Many economists see signs of a self-fulfilling "virtuous cycle," in which more jobs fuel more consumer spending, which sparks further hiring and spending and more jobs.
The presidential election is sure to be determined, in part, by how Americans interpret the shifts in the job market.
Here's how things look to employers, job seekers and analysts with varying views of the job market:
THE RELIEVED AND THE HOPEFUL
Robb Stiffler landed a job two weeks ago at Crown College, a liberal arts college in St. Bonifacius, Minn. He makes sure rooms are available and set up for school events. Stiffler used to run his own company selling paint sprayers. But the housing bust put him out of business.
Then, in nine months in real estate, he sold one house. At first, he lived off his credit cards. Then it was unemployment benefits.
He was elated to get the Crown job, his first to provide a retirement plan. Unemployment, he says, "was agony."
Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. is opening a plant in Galax, Va., near the North Carolina border. It expects to hire 50 workers by July and perhaps 65 more over the next year or two.
January's buoyant national job numbers "play right into what we have already sensed and begun to act on," says Doug Bassett, the chief operating officer.
The company's revenue has risen 20 percent in the past two months compared with the same period a year earlier. Vaughan-Bassett credits an improving economy, rising interest in U.S.-made products and higher prices on Chinese imports it competes with.
Across the country, Ancestry.com, which helps track family lineage, expects to add 150 employees this year — if it can find them.
The company, based in Provo, Utah, must compete with technology firms for engineers with expertise in artificial intelligence and in handling mountains of data (30 million family trees in Ancestry's case).
"It's only gotten harder" to find qualified applicants as the job market has improved, says Eric Shoup, senior vice president. "The likes of Google, Zynga, Facebook and others are also growing. They are soaking these people up."
James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, says the stock market's celebration of Friday's jobs report was another step in reversing Americans' economic pessimism.
"For me, the takeaway isn't so much about the healing of the job market as it is about the beginning of an attitude adjustment for this country," Paulsen said.
Michael Biggers of Brooklyn, N.Y., was happy to land a job recently at a catering company.
The job hunt took four months. Unemployment benefits helped pay the bills. And his four kids, ages 3 to 12, loved having him home. Biggers, 32, just wishes he didn't have to apply for jobs online.
"I feel like I would have found something faster if I met with a person face to face," Biggers says. "I'm just confident about me."
Perhaps no one has more reason to applaud the improving job numbers than President Barack Obama. His re-election hopes rest heavily on whether most voters will agree that the economy has improved on his watch.
"The recovery is speeding up," Obama said after the January employment report was released.
THE CAUTIOUS AND THE SKEPTICAL
In a few weeks, entrepreneur Joe Wong will open a restaurant overseeing the Sacramento River in Redding, Calif. The eatery, View 202, will employ 100.
But Wong, president of J&A Food Service, isn't convinced the economy is improving. He knows he'll have to keep menu prices down to attract the budget-conscious. Unemployment still exceeds 11 percent in Redding.
"We'll probably have 1,000 apply" for jobs, Wong says. The January jobs report is "going to get everybody excited. But we've heard it before. It just comes back down."
Farther south, the economy is only starting to improve in California's Riverside and San Bernardino counties, an area that was clobbered when housing prices plunged.
"We still have large numbers of foreclosures on the books, and property values and sales taxes are also lagging behind projections," says Tom Freeman, a Riverside County commissioner.
At least, Freeman says, businesses that sell goods overseas have been a bright spot.
In downtown Indianapolis, Windsor Jewelry hired a part-time worker for the holidays, then made him full-time as demand held up. Owner Greg Bires says he might hire another person this year. Business is a little steadier now.
Still, rising gold prices have pinched the company.
"That's been the biggest problem — just not knowing what tomorrow was going to bring," Bires says. "So we've been kind of afraid to make any major changes."
Among the highest-profile skeptics of an improving job market is Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner in the presidential race.
On Friday, Romney blamed Obama's policies for slowing the recovery, hurting families and making it harder for businesses to rebound.
"And for that," Romney said at a campaign stop in Nevada, "the president deserves the blame that he'll receive in this campaign."
Job seekers still face tough odds. There are still more than four unemployed Americans, on average, for every job opening. In a healthy economy, by contrast, that ratio would be roughly 2-to-1.
Sara Pereda, an executive assistant in New York City's entertainment industry, has applied for several job openings and received no responses, even though she's sure she was qualified. The same for many of her friends. Pereda, 30, has been seeking a job with more opportunity for advancement.
"You can send out 10 resumes and get one — and that's a maybe," Pereda says.
In Buffalo, N.Y., Rosanne DiPizio, vice president of her family's DiPizio Construction, says there isn't enough work for her company to justify hiring right now. It relies mostly on government road-construction contracts. And governments have been cutting back.
DiPizio also runs a concrete plant that would normally employ 100. It's down to 85.
"We will employ more if we have more work," she says. "It's that simple."
Jeff Searcy says fewer people are showing up at a support group he runs for job hunters at a church in Charlotte, N.C. Searcy isn't sure why. The area is suffering from 9.9 percent unemployment, far above the national average.
"We know it's not because everyone has found a job," Searcy says.
"After you've been to 10 lectures on networking, how much more can you learn?"
Aaron Cruz of Indianapolis says that while hiring has picked up, there's a catch: Landing a job can mean accepting part-time work or a pay cut. Cruz lost his job as a truck driver in December 2008. He didn't find full-time work again until last June.
His old job paid $23 an hour; his new one, $14.
"The money I'm making now at this new job ... I made in my mid-20s," he says. "I'm 42 now."
He doesn't put much stock in better employment numbers. People forced to take part-time jobs once they exhaust their unemployment aid, Cruz notes, aren't counted as unemployed. Yet they still struggle.
"Every time I hear them, I doubt the numbers," he says.
AP Business Writers Christina Rexrode and Matthew Craft in New York, Tom Murphy in Indianapolis and Joshua Freed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.