It took David Jeffrey more than a year to get back on his feet after losing his job at Sallie Mae. As of February, he is witness to the factory rebound that has boosted confidence among American men.
“If you’re not in manufacturing, jobs are hard to find,” said Jeffrey, 33, now a floor worker at a Panama City, Florida, plant for Arizona Chemical Ltd. (ARZ:US), a producer of biodegradable materials. “I have a lot of friends who are still out of work,” he said, thinking of some of the almost 700 people let go at the same time in late 2010 by the student-loan provider in the coastal resort town on Florida’s panhandle.
Men, who lost more than twice as many jobs as women during the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, have landed 88 percent of the non-farm jobs created since the recession ended in June 2009. The share of men saying the economy was improving jumped to 41 percent in March, compared with 26 percent of women, according to the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index’s monthly expectations gauge.
“The recovery is a mancovery,” said Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Washington-based Center for American Progress. “I don’t see improvement for women in the past year, whereas for men this is the best year in years.”
The jobless rate for males 16 years old or older has dropped 2.3 percentage points since the recession ended, falling to 8.3 percent in February from 10.6 percent in June 2009. It has barely budged for women over the same period, moving to 8.2 percent from 8.3 percent, according to figures from the Labor Department.
Retailers are taking notice of the divergence as men are propelling a revival in demand for items from pickup trucks to suits and underwear.
Part of the reason is that traditionally male-dominated fields like construction and manufacturing are waking from hibernation. Factories expanded in March at a faster pace, driven by gains in employment and production, a report from the Institute for Supply Management showed yesterday. Housing starts hovered in February near a three-year high and building permits rose to the highest level since October 2008, according to the Commerce Department.
Shares of companies in the two industries are climbing as a result. The Standard & Poor’s Supercomposite Machinery Index (S15MACH), which includes companies like Caterpillar Inc. and Eaton Corp., is up 17 percent so far this year. The S&P Supercomposite Homebuilding (S15HOME) Index has advanced 23 percent.
Both measures have outpaced the gain in the broader market. The S&P 500 Index has climbed 12 percent over the same period. The measure dropped 0.4 percent to close at 1,413.31 in New York, a day after reaching the highest level since 2008, as minutes from the Federal Reserve’s latest policy meeting damped expectations for additional monetary easing.
An improving job market, rising stock prices and easier credit are combining to lift the American economy just as Europe slides into a recession and China’s economy decelerates, indicating the U.S. may be emerging as an engine of growth.
Because American voters look more favorably on the incumbent when the economy is picking up, the improved outlook for men may translate into more votes for President Barack Obama, who already has an advantage with women.
Obama won 56 percent of women and 49 percent of men in the last election, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington. He now holds a 20-point advantage among women voters over Republican front-runner Mitt Romney and runs about even with men, Pew found in a March poll.
Alan Amdahl is living the change in construction’s prospects. After the collapse in subprime lending made credit hard to get, the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, builder had to cut about half of his full-time workers and took on renovations to bring in revenue.
Late last year, things picked up. Amdahl, 54, has added three people in recent months, bringing his staff to nine, and he’s still hiring. Business is so good he’s had to turn down work.
“I’ve sold more homes this year than I did all of last year,” said Amdahl, who has been self-employed for 35 years.
The percentage of men 20 years old and older who are employed has grown in the past two years and now stands at almost 68 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey (EMPWMEN). Women have lost ground in each of the past five years.
“Men and women saw the same rate of job loss in the first two years” of the recession, said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington research group funded in part by labor unions. “Since then, it’s not been equal. In the recovery, men have seen disproportionate job gains.”
Retail sales reflect the shift. More men are hitting the mall to shop and brands that long have catered to women are trying to expand their customer base. Last year, men spent 4.2 percent more on clothes than a year earlier, compared with a 3.1 percent gain for women’s fashion, according to market research firm NPD Group Inc.
Large pickup trucks sales have been trending up since January 2011, from about 93,000 to nearly 120,000 in February, according to Ward’s Automotive Group, which compiles vehicle data. Sales of cars and light trucks climbed to a 15 million annual rate in February, the best showing in four years.
While men’s confidence in the economy is growing, it is still tempered by lingering effects of the downturn.
“The bottom line is men are still down a much greater number of jobs, a much greater percentage of jobs, than they were before the recession started,” Shierholz said. “They’re still in a deeper hole.”
Jeffrey knows that all too well. A month into his job, he and his wife are paying off bills and rebuilding their savings account, working to “repair the damage” done by his long unemployment, he said. Some of his friends still struggle.
“I know a lot of people who went from jobs making $40,000 and they’re working at Wal-Mart,” he said. “It’s still rocky.”
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