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The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate hit 4.4 percent in February, the worst level in more than three years as companies increasingly reduced payrolls in response to the economic downturn, the government said Tuesday.

The number of people out of work grew by 330,000 from a year earlier to 2.99 million, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said in a preliminary report.

The jobless rate was up 0.3 percentage point from January, the fourth consecutive monthly rise and the highest level since January 2006.

The rate was slightly above the average market forecast of 4.3 percent in a Kyodo News survey.

“There remains a tough environment” surrounding the job market, due largely to the worldwide economic slowdown, a ministry official said. “The deterioration (in payrolls) is getting severe in its extent.”

The ratio of job offers to job seekers was at a seasonally adjusted 0.59, which means there were 59 jobs available for every 100 people looking for work, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said. That was down from 0.67 in January and marked the ninth straight monthly decline. The ratio was also lower than the projected 0.63.

The ratio of 0.59 was the lowest since February 2003 and its fall by 0.08 from the previous month was the sharpest single-month drop since December 1974.

The number of job offers declined 6.7 percent from January, while that of job seekers expanded 4.9 percent, according to the labor ministry.

Meanwhile, the number of new job offers slid 30.1 percent from a year earlier.

According to the internal affairs ministry, the unemployment rate for men rose 0.2 point to 4.4 percent and that for women was up 0.3 point to 4.4 percent.

The government responded calmly to the result but said employment issues will be at the center of its envisaged additional economic stimulus.

“We will handle the problem as the top priority,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said.

The administration of Prime Minister Taro Aso is reportedly planning efforts to create 2 million jobs over the next three years.

Akira Maekawa, senior economist at UBS Securities Japan Ltd., said that without the government’s emergency measures the unemployment rate will surge to 6 percent between this summer and fall.

The number of jobholders came to 62.65 million, down 270,000 from a year before, and dropping for the 13th consecutive month.

The number of male jobholders slid 470,000 to 36.54 million. The figure for women gained 210,000 to 26.12 million.

The internal affairs ministry said the data underlined that more women, especially housewives, have sought jobs to financially support their households.

But the ministry also said many such female workers are being hired for temporary, short-term positions, and that the trend of women entering the job market is still too weak to overcome the overall sluggishness of employment conditions.

The number of people dismissed from their jobs grew 330,000 to 940,000, reaching the worst level since comparable data was first kept in 2002. Meanwhile, 960,000 people, down 70,000, quit their jobs of their own volition.

The number of jobholders in the manufacturing industry fell 220,000 to 11.03 million. The construction industry saw a fall of 260,000 to 5.19 million due to declines in housing starts and public works projects.

Male unemployment rates rose for almost all age brackets. The rate for 15- to 24-year-olds deteriorated most sharply, up 1.7 points to 9.1 percent.

For women, joblessness rose for all age brackets, also most sharply in the 15-24 age group, which was up 1.7 points to 8.8 percent.

Spending down 3.5%

Household spending in February dropped a real 3.5 percent to an average of ¥266,044, extending its downtrend to a 12th consecutive month, the government said in a preliminary report Tuesday.

However, the drop was less than the average of 4.7 percent as projected in a Kyodo News market survey.

The 12-month downturn in household spending, which excludes single households, is the longest since 2006, when it also declined over the course of the full calendar year, the Internal Affairs and Commu nications Ministry said.

Sony to slash grads

Sony Corp. plans to slash recruitment of college graduates by 48 percent to 280 workers next spring as the global economic downturn continues to take its toll on earnings, company officials said Tuesday.

“The environment surrounding our company has changed so we will use more rigorous standards in selecting (the students) we hire,” a company spokesperson said.

Sony said 200 of the fresh hires will be engineers and the rest clerical staff.

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