By John S. McClenahen Even the most modest improvement in U.S. manufacturing employment seems to remain months away. In May, for the 34th consecutive month, the manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy lost jobs. The number shed last month: 53,000, says the U.S. Department of Labor. "Over-the-month losses were widespread, with notable declines persisting in computer and electronic products, machinery and fabricated metals," says Kathleen P. Utgoff, commissioner of the department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 2.6 million U.S. factory jobs have been lost since July 2000. As manufacturing jobs were disappearing in May the rest of the U.S. economy was adding 36,000 jobs, resulting in a net loss of 17,000 jobs from nonfarm payrolls last month. In May, the overall U.S. unemployment rate rose to 6.1%, up a tenth of a percentage point from April's 6%. The number of persons unemployed was 9 million. "On a brighter note, there is reason to expect the economy will shift up a gear in the second half of the year," says Jerry J. Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, Washington, D.C. "Credit markets are in a much more accommodative position now than earlier in the year; the [U.S.] dollar's realignment with market fundamentals will aid exporters; and the recently passed tax cut will boost consumer and business spending. These forces are setting the stage for a cyclical rebound in the second half of the year, which should lead to a modest improvement in manufacturing employment."