By Don Lee, Tribune Washington Bureau –
WASHINGTON — The U.S. unemployment rate dropped further in December as employers added a healthy batch of new jobs, closing out a tumultuous year with some hopeful signs for the long wobbly economy and sluggish labor market.
The Labor Department said Friday that the jobless rate edged down to 8.5 percent in December from a revised 8.7 percent in November. The unemployment rate has fallen steadily since August, when the rate was 9.1 percent, based on the revisions.
Last month, the economy produced 200,000 new net jobs. That’s an acceleration from 100,000 jobs added in November and an average growth of 137,000 jobs a month for all of 2011. While a good chunk of last month’s new hires were seasonally related, in warehousing and retail, manufacturing and healthcare employers also reported solid job gains.
The latest jobs report adds to the body of evidence that the economy perked up in the fourth quarter, thanks to strong manufacturing and business investments, as well as resilient consumer spending.
But it remains to be seen whether the recent momentum can be sustained. Many analysts see only modest job and economic growth this year, concerned about American consumers’ debts and ability to spend vigorously, and headwinds facing the economy such as a recession in Europe and the U.S. budget crunch.
Last year job growth accelerated early in the year but fizzled in spring when nasty domestic politics and events overseas — the Arab spring, Europe’s debt woes and Japan’s double whammy of quake and tsunami — took the wind out of the economic sails.
For all of last year, the economy created about 1.6 million net new jobs, up from 940,000 added to payrolls in 2010. Still, total U.S. payrolls are down about 6.1 million from December 2007 at the start of the great recession. And last month, more than 13 million people were counted as jobless, and another 8.1 million part-time workers said they could not get full-time jobs.