jobless claims
People wait in line to enter a job fair in New York. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

U.S. employers planned slightly fewer layoffs in February than January, but the year-to-date pace of corporate downsizing is up 18 percent over last year, led by consumer products companies, global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. said Thursday.

Planned cuts in work force last month were 51,728, down 3.3 percent from the 53,486 recorded in January, but still 2 percent higher than in February 2011.

Corporate downsizing so far this year is up 18 percent to 105,214 over the first two months of last year when there were 89,221 planned layoffs.

What may stand out most about 2012 job cuts so far is not the number of layoffs, but the source, Challenger, Gray & Christmas said in its report. Last year, job cuts in the first two months were dominated by the government sector, a trend that would continue throughout 2011. Through the first two months of 2012, job cuts have been concentrated in consumer products and transportation.

Consumer-products firms led all others in job reductions, having announced 16,320 this year, up 351 percent from the 3,621 announced at this point a year ago. The second-ranked transportation sector has seen job cuts increase 616 percent from 2,211 a year ago to 15,835 in 2012. Together, these two sectors account for 32,155 job cuts or 30.6 percent of the year-to-date total.

The firm attributed the higher number of planned layoffs in consumer products and transportation to rising fuel prices.

Government layoffs so far this year are down 84 percent.

It is too soon to say that the government sector is out of the woods when it comes to layoffs, the firm's chief executive, John A. Challenger, said in a statement.

However, recent gains in employment across many states are undoubtedly helping to boost payroll tax revenue. Furthermore, many states and local municipalities have already cut to the bone and may have little room for additional cuts. The biggest threat for increased government job cuts remains the federal government, which is still under pressure to cut deficits and bring spending under control.