WASHINGTON — America's slow climb from the depths of the Great Recession appears well under way.
As fears of a double-dip downturn fade, even the most pessimistic experts are asking how far and how fast will the U.S. economy recover this year?
Finally, after months with the economy essentially stuck in neutral, there are encouraging signs: Employers are beginning to add jobs, from manufacturers of steel, cars and heavy machinery to online retailers and high-tech firms.
But like a massive cleanup after a natural disaster, righting the nation's economy after losing 8 million jobs will be a long, painful process for millions of job seekers.
The worst economic downturn in a generation has sorely tested the patience and resolve of American workers, and analysts say it could take another five years before the unemployment rate returns to a "normal" 6 percent.
The recession officially ended in June 2009 — more than a year and a half ago — but it hasn't felt like it. In a new monthly poll by Marist College, 71 percent of adults still think there's still a recession.
The same poll, however, found that 54 percent now think the worst of the economic downturn is over, compared to only 39 percent who felt that way in December.
That one-month spike in public confidence may be the lagging indicator that shows the nation is turning a psychological corner on economic gloom and doom.
"Americans are beginning to see the light at the end of the economic tunnel," said Lee M. Miringoff, the director of The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. "But they still think there's a long way to go."
And they're right. There are still nearly five unemployed workers for every job opening. The labor force is smaller than it was before the recession, and 44 percent of jobless workers have been unemployed for at least six months.
America officially stopped bleeding jobs in late 2009. In 2010, the U.S. added 1.1 million jobs, or about 94,000 per month, as unemployment fell from 9.8 percent to 9.4 percent in December.
These numbers aren't overwhelming — especially when one considers that the jobless rate fell last month in part because 260,000 people stopped looking for work.
But after losing nearly 4.7 million private sector jobs in 2009, a gain of 1.1 million new jobs in 2010 is undeniable progress.
And as the poll numbers show, Americans are starting to think that recovery is within their reach.
That faith was evidenced by strong retail sales during the holiday season, which many top corporate executives expect to continue through 2011.
"When demand increases, as you know, capital expenditures and employment follow, which is what we expect to see in the next six months," said Ivan G. Seidenberg, the chairman of the Business Roundtable and the chief executive of Verizon Communications.
In his State of American Business address last week, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue predicted the economy would grow by 3.2 percent in 2011 and add 2.4 million to 2.6 million new jobs.
"Last year, we worried about a double dip recession," he said. "Today, we are cautiously optimistic that the recovery will continue and pick up steam as the year progresses."
Increased demand is why General Motors, riding the wave of its successful reorganization and strong 2010 sales, added a third shift — 1,200 workers — at its Lordstown, Ohio, complex to back the September rollout of the new Chevrolet Cruze. Most of the new workers were either called back from layoffs or transferred from other idled GM facilities.
The move will boost the long struggling Youngstown-Warren, Ohio, area by generating $47 million a year in additional payroll as well as nearly $500,000 in local income taxes and about $1.4 million in state income tax.
"We're at full capacity right now in terms of people power, but who knows what the future holds in these dynamic times," said Lordstown plant spokesman Tom Mock.
Increased demand is also why Macy's Inc. plans to add 3,500 new positions over the next two years to support online sales growth at Macys.com and Bloomingdales.com. The expansion will bring 375 new marketing and merchandising positions to New York City, 200 site development and operations jobs to San Francisco and 150 new systems and technology positions to Atlanta.
Macy's will soon break ground on a new facility in Berkeley County, W.Va., that will fill and ship online orders beginning in 2012. About 1,200 full- and part-time employees will work there, along with nearly 700 seasonal workers.
A similar Macy's facility in Portland, Tenn., will employ 250 new full- and part-time workers once an expansion is completed this fall.
Online sales at Macy's Inc. jumped 29 percent in the first 10 months of fiscal year 2010 over the comparable period a year before.
"Having the right talent in the right place is vital as we seek to sustain and accelerate our sales growth online, as well as in the stores," said Terry J. Lundgren, the chairman of Cincinnati-based Macy's Inc.
It's not only large employers that are adding jobs. E-Beam Services Inc., an electron beam-processing company in Lebanon, Ohio, expects to double its work force to 44 employees over the next two years once it builds a second electron-beam accelerator.
And in Georgetown, S.C., ArcelorMittal is re-opening a steel mill on Jan. 24, bringing back 33 salary and 144 hourly employees who haven't worked since the plant closed in July 2009. The company expects to produce 264,000 tons of wire rods each year.
Employers plan to hire 13.5 percent more new college graduates in 2011 than in 2010, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And only 10 percent of employers in a new association poll plan to cut back on hiring this year. That's the lowest percentage since October 2009.
In North Charleston, S.C., a new Boeing airline parts assembly plant will create more than 150 new jobs this year. The company also plans to increase monthly production of its 777 and 737 jetliners in the next few years, which will add extra work shifts and job opportunities at both of Boeing's Seattle-area plants.
"We see 2010 as the year of overall economic recovery within the industry and 2011 a year where airlines return to profitability. As a result, we anticipate an increase in demand for airplanes in 2012 and beyond," said a statement by Randy Tinseth, the vice president of Marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
An expansion by Farmers Insurance will eventually bring 1,600 jobs to hard-hit Michigan.
And after laying off 17,000 employees and buying out 2,500 others in 2009, Caterpillar added about 6,750 U.S. jobs last year. Earnings for 2010 aren't yet available, but after sales and revenue of $32.4 billion in 2009, Caterpillar, of Peoria, Ill., expects sales to reach about $50 billion this year.
"I am pleased that we have put so many people back to work this year, and with continued global economic growth, we will add people in 2011, but remain keenly focused on cost control," Caterpillar chief executive Doug Oberhelman said in a recent statement.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY