Jobless rate drops sharply to 8.6 percent in November

WASHINGTON — The surprising drop in November’s unemployment rate to 8.6 percent overshadowed what may be a more significant positive trend, a sharp upturn in hiring by the nation’s small businesses.

Overall, U.S. employers added 120,000 jobs in November as the unemployment rate fell sharply from 9 percent, the Labor Department said in a report that brought holiday cheer.

Private-sector employers added 140,000 jobs last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in its survey of non-farm payrolls, but the net job gain was dragged down by 20,000 government jobs lost at federal, state and local levels.

The BLS also revised the September job estimates sharply upward from the original 158,000 to 210,000, a strong number. October’s estimate of 80,000 jobs gained also was revised up, by 20,000.

“The job market is firming at year's end. Job growth has picked up in recent months, particularly among smaller businesses. The employment gains have also broadened out across industries from retailing to manufacturing,” said Mark Zandi, the chief economist for forecaster Moody’s Analytics. “The sharp improvement in unemployment is encouraging, but overstates the improvement. The job market is still struggling, but it is gaining momentum going into 2012.”

Economists think the BLS payrolls report may be undercounting hiring by small businesses. This may explain why a key private-sector employment gauge posted surprisingly strong numbers Wednesday somewhat at odds with Friday’s BLS data. The ADP National Employment Report said 206,000 private-sector jobs were created in November. Employers with more than 500 workers accounted for about 6 percent of the hiring, the ADP report said, while employers with fewer than 49 workers accounted for 53 percent of the new jobs.

The National Federation of Independent Business, which surveys the pulse of smaller firms, also said Friday that its members were seeing an uptick in hiring.

“The percent of owners cutting jobs has returned to ‘normal’ levels,” said William Dunkelberg, the group’s chief economist. “And the percent of owners adding workers continued to trend up. Reports of new job creation should pick up a bit in the coming months."

The sharp fall in the unemployment rate, while a potential boost to the political fortunes of President Barack Obama, stemmed from two factors.

First, there was an outsized decline of 315,000 people in the workforce. Those presumably are people who gave up looking for work, and they’ll return to the workforce eventually. The rest stemmed from growth in the number of jobs.

“About half of the drop in unemployment in the household survey was due to a decline in the labor force and about half to employment growth,” Alan Krueger, the new head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement.

The unemployment rate is derived from a survey of households, while the job-growth number is drawn from a survey of businesses. Economists at RDQ Economics, a New York forecaster, argued in a research note that the household survey has shown stronger employment gains than the payroll survey has for four straight months. RDQ said the unemployment rate had shown “a more rapid decline than one would have expected given the data on the broader economy.”

The strong job numbers add to a recent trend of positive economic indicators, including sharply rising consumer confidence, auto sales, Black Friday retail sales and a key manufacturing index by the Institute of Supply Management. It all points to a firming U.S. economic recovery, with the biggest shadow cast by Europe’s debt crisis.

“November's employment gain, augmented by net upward revisions of 72,000 to September-October readings, continues the run of U.S. economic data showing heartening (and in its degree somewhat surprising to us) resilience in the face of the deepening euro area debt crisis,” Alan Levenson, the chief economist for Baltimore-based investment giant T. Rowe Price, wrote in a research note.

Stocks rallied as trading opened Friday, but concerns about Europe, where leaders hold key meetings next week, killed off the rally late in the day. The Dow Jones industrial average ended down 0.61 point to close at 12,019.42. The S&P 500 was off 0.30 point to 1,244.28 and the NASDAQ finished up 0.73 point to 2,626.93.

Economists for Bank of America Merrill Lynch characterized the good jobs numbers with a catchy headline: “Employment: Labor market moved into second gear.” The U.S. economy has built momentum heading into 2012, they said.

“Over the last three months, the U.S. economy has been generating roughly 145,000 jobs per month — not a blow-out, to be sure, but still ahead of what we saw in the summer. The weakness in employment continues to be in the state and local government sector,” the economists wrote.

Most economic sectors posted job gains, including retail, which added 50,000 posts, and professional and business services, up 33,000. Temporary employment, usually a harbinger of future employment, increased by 22,300 positions. Leisure and hospitality, also a harbinger of increased white-collar and business spending, rose 22,000.

Manufacturing employment was largely unchanged.

“Manufacturers have added just 6,000 net new jobs since July; whereas from January 2010 to July 2011, they generated 302,000 in new employment,” Chad Moutray, the chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers, noted in his blog

Still, Moutray was optimistic about a better 2012.

“It would be nice to get the manufacturing jobs engine going again, with net job gains where they were prior to August. Nonetheless, there are signs of improvement in many areas of the economy — including manufacturing — which should spill over into a better 2012,” he wrote.

There wasn’t much optimism for the hard-hit construction sector, which shed another 12,000 jobs in November. Over the past 12 months, the construction industry has added just 18,000 jobs, and a surge is unlikely next year, according to the trade group Associated Builders and Contractors.

“According to ABC’s 2012 Construction Economic Forecast, we can only expect to see gradual progress in construction activity next year,” Anirban Basu, the group’s chief economist, wrote in an analysis of the jobs numbers.


— Government jobs, down 20,000.

— Construction, down 12,000.

— Manufacturing, up 2,000.

— Financial services, up 8,000.

— Transportation and warehousing, up 8,300.

— Health care, up 17,000.

— Leisure and hospitality, up 22,000.

— Temporary help services, up 22,300.

—Professional and business services, up 33,000.

— Retail, up 50,000.


Employment by sector

ADP report


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