WASHINGTON — The employment picture for apparel retailers improved slightly in August, as department stores added jobs for the first time since May, but the overall outlook remained weak.

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Department stores added 5,800 jobs last month to employ 1.53 million, but specialty stores cut 9,500 to employ 1.4 million, the Labor Department said Friday.

Despite the higher department store jobs figure, the overall landscape for retailers was not bright, economists said.

“I don’t see this to be sustainable, given the lackluster outlook for the consumer,” said Richard Yamarone, director of economic research at Argus Research Corp. “While it’s great for the economy and great for out-of-work employees, I can’t see how it’s sustained. The outlook for economic conditions remains relatively bleak.”

The economy has lost 6.9 million jobs since December 2007, according to Labor Department figures.

Retailers are likely to keep their staffs lean until the economy shows more significant signs of improvement, Yamarone said. Most economic indicators, such as income levels and salary growth, are weak. In addition, he said, the duration of unemployment is hovering close to historic highs of almost six months.

The overall pace of job losses moderated in August, with a decline of 216,000, the lowest monthly loss this year, compared with 276,000 in July. The unemployment rate rose to 9.7 percent from 9.4 percent, the highest since 1983, the Labor Department said.

August employment figures were in line with recent trends that showed a slowing of deterioration in the broader economy, said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics for Moody’s Economy.com.

“We think it’s likely to be the second half of next year before we see consistent job gains,” Hoyt said.

In the manufacturing sector, textile mills, which make apparel fabric, cut 600 jobs to employ 122,100. Textile product mills, which primarily manufacture home furnishing fabrics, eliminated 300 jobs to employ 125,600. Apparel manufacturers cut 1,600 positions to employ 165,000.


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