Wednesday AM September 20th, 2006

Monster Employment Index shows Houston at top of list for online job growth... Microsoft files lawsuits against two Houston companies in illegal software crackdown...Southwest Airlines and American Airlines pilots beginning contract talks this week...

The Monster Local Employment Index for Houston rose three points to a level of 115 in August, helping Houston top the list of major markets in online job availability growth over the past year. Monster's Steve Pogorzelski says 20 job categories are monitored.

"These are the same occupational categories that the United States Bureau of labor Statistics uses to put out their national payroll and unemployment reports. In August, 16 out of 20 occupational categories increased. The biggest increase we saw was in military. And that's driven not only by stronger demand within the armed forces, but also across myriad private aerospace and defense contractors centered in the Houston area. Also accounting and auditing, IT and management positions rose rather healthily, rather steadily in August in the Houston area. When we look at a year-over year basis, there's three categories that really stand out, and that's architectural and engineering jobs, transportation jobs as well as production jobs."

Pogorzelski says the index suggests significant momentum in the Houston economy.

"Well, overall I would suggest that Houston is rather strong, but, you know, certainly that there's some other, some categories that are not necessarily as strong as others. When we look at Houston, you start to see some of the seasonal occupations like building grounds cleaning and maintenance not necessarily being in high demand. And the same thing when you look at sales—sales is up, but not as high as some of the other categories, which is a bit surprising."

Houston continues to benefit from the area's booming energy industry and its significant trade and export links.

Microsoft has filed lawsuits against four Texas companies, including two in Houston, in a crackdown on companies it claims are illegally distributing its software, according to the Houston Business Journal. Microsoft filed suit in U.S. District Court against computer resellers ITQ Computers/One-Line and Computer Laptop Sales and individuals with those companies. The suit claims the firms distributed counterfeit software or participated in hard-disk loading, or the installation of unlicensed software on computers then sold to customers.

American chief executives are less optimistic about the business climate in the coming months, according to Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives of major corporations. The survey shows that there are lower expectations for sales, capital spending and employment than in a previous survey earlier this summer. Some 32 percent say they expect to increase payrolls, down from 41 percent in the previous survey.

The Labor Department is offering some more reassuring news on inflation. Falling gasoline prices helped the August Producer Price Index to rise only one-tenth of one percent. It is the government's main gauge of inflation at the wholesale level. The core rate, which excludes food and energy costs, declined four-tenths of one percent. On the heels of a July drop, it marks the first back-to-back declines for core inflation in more than three years. The news should help the Federal Reserve feel more comfortable about the inflation outlook. The central bank, scheduled to hold a policy-setting meeting tomorrow, is expected to hold the line on interest rates.

The government says the slowdown in new housing construction was more pronounced than thought last month. Housing starts fell six percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of more than 1.6 million units. The decline reported by the Commerce Department is the fifth in six months. The outlook isn't much better. Building permits, a gauge of future construction, were down 2.3 percent. That is the seventh straight monthly decline for building permits. The pullback in the housing market comes after five years of record-setting activity.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines and Fort Worth-based American Airlines begin contract talks this week with their pilots. The carriers are looking to control costs by having more flexibility in work scheduling. But American's pilots seeking to reverse lost gains from the 2003 contract bargaining. Southwest began negotiations today in Dallas with the union representing its 5,000 pilots. They last negotiated a contract in 1994, when the union agreed to a ten-year deal that was extended in 2004. At American--the nation's largest carrier--the Allied Pilots Association will present its opening proposal tomorrow. Their 2003 contract can be changed in May 2008, but American asked the union to start negotiations early.

The AARP says the rising costs of medications for the elderly slowed in the second quarter of the year. The prices charged by manufacturers on brand-name drugs most commonly used by the elderly rose .5 percent, below the overall inflation rate. The group says the slowdowns have come to be expected from April through June because price increases usually take effect at the start of the year. The AARP says that prices for 193 brand-name drugs rose an average of 4.3 percent in the first half of the year. The advocacy group says the price increases show the need for legislation that would allow consumers to buy medicine from foreign countries. The brand-name drug with the highest price increase so far this year is ambien, with a 13.2-percent increase for a five-milligram dosage.

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