Jobless Rate Steady In December At 7.8 Percent

U.S. employers continued to add jobs at a modest but steady pace last month. Despite worries about the fiscal cliff, the unemployment rate stood at 7.8 percent. There were no big surprises in Friday's report from the Labor Department.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. 2012 was a year of slow economic recovery, and this morning we have a final snapshot of the jobs picture for last year. In December, U.S. employers continued to add jobs at a modest but steady pace. Despite worries about the fiscal cliff, the unemployment rate for December stood at 7.8 percent. There were no big surprises in this morning's report from the Labor Department, and NPR's Yuki Noguchi joins me in the studio to take a closer look at the numbers. And Yuki, what are you seeing here? What are the main trends?

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Well, as you mentioned, the broader trend lines here really haven't changed much; 155,000 new jobs were added last month. That is in line with expectations, and by the way, almost exactly the average number of jobs added every month in 2012. So the Labor Department is also saying unemployment rate is unchanged, at 7.8 percent. That's because November's rate was revised up a notch. So while it appears to go up, there's actually no change. For the whole year, 1.8 million new jobs added.

GREENE: Well, you know, at the end of last year so much was made of this fiscal cliff battle in Congress - businesses being hesitant to hire until Congress settled things. Congress settled some, not other stuff. They left a lot of the big decisions for later. What do you feel like businesses are saying at this point?

NOGUCHI: Well, you know, we're not really seeing evidence that that affected the hiring level, because the hiring level remains at where it's been all year and in fact for the past two years. A lot of businesses did threaten to halt hiring and investment as a result of uncertainty about tax rates. Now, could December have been better had it not been for the fiscal cliff debate? Possibly. On the other hand, it wasn't worse.

One more thing about that. Congress, as you know, only dealt with half of the equation - so spending cuts and raising the debt ceiling still remain on the table. And the new Congress will have to strike more deals in coming weeks. Government cost-cutting is still a big concern for businesses, and analysts also believe economic growth slowed pretty dramatically in the fourth quarter. So you could still see a hiring slowdown in coming months.

GREENE: And we should say that this report was dealing with a time before Congress dealt with part of the fiscal cliff.

NOGUCHI: That's right. These surveys are taken in the middle of the month.

What about Superstorm Sandy? There was some speculation that December's jobs report, which shows some unusual blips or effects as a result of that big storm - I mean did construction get a boost from, you know, the rebuilding after...

Yeah, that appears to be the case. Yeah, construction added 30,000 jobs last month. That makes December the best month to land a construction job in almost two years. Partly that's because the housing sector is, you know, moving again, gaining strength. But a lot of that, as you mentioned, is repair and rebuild efforts after Sandy. Health care, food services and manufacturing also added jobs. Retail, which had been really strong for the previous three months, lost a few jobs. And government lost 13,000 jobs.

GREENE: Okay, so this unemployment number we've gotten - things are at 7.8 percent for December. Step back and give us a sense of where 2012 started and where it ended and what it means.

NOGUCHI: Well, 2012 started with an employment rate of 8.3 percent. There were 12.8, so almost 13 million people at the beginning of the year who were unemployed. Now the rate is down half a percent and there 600,000 fewer unemployed people. The optimist's take would be, well, we're chipping away. The pessimist's take is, at this rate of 150,000 new jobs every month it would take six and a half years to get every one of those people working again.

GREENE: That's a long time.

NOGUCHI: That is a long time.

GREENE: And that doesn't even take into account all the people who might be on the sidelines waiting until the job market improves to even start looking, right?

NOGUCHI: And that's a very key point, David. Last month, labor force participation didn't change. That means the number of people working or looking for work remains stuck at a significantly lower level than when the recession began. And labor economists really worry about that. We need about 100,000 new jobs just to keep pace with immigration and graduating students and all the people who enter the labor force in any given month. And as you mentioned, millions of people have left the workforce in the downturn. Some of those people have retired and therefore, you know, will never come back. But some of them will certainly try if and when the economy improves.

GREENE: NPR's Yuki Noguchi, thanks so much.

NOGUCHI: Thank you, David.

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