WASHINGTON — The nation's economy generated 210,000 new jobs during October, keeping the unemployment rate at 5.2%, the Labor Department reported Friday, offering good news for President Clinton in the final stage of the election campaign.
The jobless rate is close to the seven-year low of 5.1% reached in August. In October four years ago, the rate stood at 7.3%.
The moderate pace of job growth has restrained the unemployment rate without causing labor scarcities that might trigger sharp rises in wages and production costs, economists said.
"There is decent job creation going on without inflationary pressures," said Dean Baker of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research organization.
For 1997, the expectation is "no change, nothing in the pipeline to get the economy off its trend," said David Hensley, an economist with the Salomon Bros. investment firm.
The big job gains last month came in the services sector, including 62,000 jobs in retail trade, "reflecting a strong start in seasonal hiring in department stores, and gains in food stores and other retail establishments," Katherine G. Abraham, commissioner of labor statistics, said at a news conference Friday.
About 24,000 jobs were added in health services--hospitals, doctors offices and nursing facilities.
Manufacturing, which had a big drop of 59,000 jobs in September, rebounded last month with a gain of 6,000 jobs. The aircraft, chemical and lumber and publishing industries all added jobs last month.
There is scant evidence of any wage pressures--average hourly earnings were $11.91 last month, unchanged from September. And average weekly earnings were $412.28 last month, compared with $402.52 a year before, for a modest 2.4% increase.
It takes about 120,000 new jobs a year to match the growth in the work force--new workers coming out of high school and college, and immigrants. The overall jobless rate has fallen significantly in the past year because job growth reached about 217,000 a month.
The falling jobless rate is rekindling debate among economists about the so-called natural level of unemployment. Many economists in recent years pegged it at 6% of the work force, warning that any rate lower would lead to labor scarcities, enabling workers to get big pay hikes that in turn would set off inflation. However, there have been scant signs of inflation as the jobless rate remains far below 6%.
The absence of wage hikes and the moderate pace of economic growth have reassured the Federal Reserve Board, always vigilant for the threat of inflation. The Fed has refrained from pushing up interest rates, is satisfied with the economy and is likely to stay on the sidelines again at its meeting later this month, many experts say.
"There are reasonably strong fundamentals out there," said Gary Schlossberg, an economist with Wells Fargo Bank. Confidence levels are high, he noted.
Another encouraging note for future business activity came from the Commerce Department, which reported this week that factory orders rose 2.7% during September, the biggest gain in two years. Most of the gains came from a surge in orders for aircraft.
The Labor Department said there were 120.2 million Americans at work in October, an increase of 11.3 million in the last four years.
The proportion of adults working set a new record--63.4% of Americans over the age of 16 were employed last month, the highest figure since the government began keeping records 48 years ago.
Like many government statistics, this figure is likely to be viewed differently depending on the political spin. Democrats will probably say that the high number reflects the job opportunities for all Americans, while Republicans will be more likely to say it reflects the rising economic stresses on families.
One sign of the economic pressure is the rising number of people with more than one job. About 6.5% of all workers, some 8.4 million people, were listed as "multiple jobholders" last month. Their ranks have increased by 400,000 over the last year.
Unemployment in October totaled 6.9 million people.
The jobless rates for ethnic groups included: whites, 4.4%, down from 4.5% in September; blacks, 10.8%, up from 10.5%; and Latinos, 8%, down from 8.2%.