After cutting its staff by 30% in the recession, Dura-Bond Industries is hiring 75 workers for a planned Pittsburgh-area factory that will make pipeline coatings to feed a natural gas drilling boom that's lifting the state's economy.
In West Palm Beach, Fla., a far more tenuous rebound in residential and commercial construction is underway. Uncertain whether the recovery will strengthen, land planners Ken and Wendy Tuma have added just two employees to their staff of 22 recently, opting to put in extra hours themselves to handle the slightly heavier workload.
Pennsylvania and Florida, both key battleground states in this fall's presidential election, highlight a jobs recovery that's been uneven across the 50 states and Washington, D.C. While Pennsylvania has regained 57% of the jobs it lost in the recession, Florida has recaptured just 19%, based on average monthly employment gains in the second quarter.
More than three years after the Great Recession ended, the U.S. has recovered slightly less than half of the 8.8 million jobs that vanished in the downturn, producing a patchwork of thriving state economies, some still troubled and many in a wide in-between. Generally, energy strongholds are leading the jobs recovery. The Rust Belt has made significant strides on an auto industry rebound and rising exports but is still well off pre-recession peaks. And states pummeled by the housing crash are trailing.
About half the states have recouped about a third or fewer of their lost jobs. Just four, and Washington, D.C., have returned to peak employment, according to USA TODAY's analysis of quarterly data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics starting from January 2007.
IHS Global Insight expects nearly half the states to return to peak employment by the end of 2013, more than four years after the recovery began. Twenty-three states aren't expected to reclaim all their lost jobs until 2015 or later.
The wide disparities among states could help tip the election, possibly benefiting President Obama in swing states that have recovered most or all of their lost jobs and giving Republican nominee Mitt Romney an advantage in states that are lagging.
"It's not a conclusive factor, but it's an important part of the environment," says Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Minnesota.
Neither candidate appears to have a clear edge. Six swing states -- Virginia, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Colorado, New Hampshire and Ohio -- are within 1.5% to 5.1% of their pre-recession employment peaks. The other six -- North Carolina, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Nevada -- are 5.2% to 12.6% below their peaks.
Nationwide, the glacial payroll recovery can be traced to a bruising downturn sparked by a real estate crash that decimated household wealth and set off a credit crisis that slowed lending. In July, U.S. unemployment ticked up from 8.2% to 8.3%, and the jobless rate rose in 44 states, the most states to post a monthly increase in three years.
The slow upswing is affecting regions of the country less uniformly than previous recoveries, says IHS economist Jim Diffley. In the Northeast, for example, a high-tech rebound is bolstering job growth in Massachusetts and New York, but a slowdown in pharmaceuticals is hobbling New Jersey. The real estate downturn, meanwhile, has hampered Florida and Georgia far more than Tennessee and Kentucky, both of which are benefiting from the auto industry comeback.
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