The monthly national jobs report from the U.S. Department of Labor for December showed moderately strong growth as the U.S. added 200,000 jobs on a seasonally-adjusted basis and as the unemployment rate dipped to 8.5 percent.
The 200,000 job gain is important because it is solidly above the growth in the working-age population, which means that the country is actually making progress in its jobs recovery. The job gains of around 100,000 in previous months were much closer to population growth, meaning that we were only treading water. Indeed, the 58.5 percent of people who are working in December 2011 is the same rate as October 2009, when the unemployment rate crested at 10 percent.
Also notable was how widespread the employment gains were. Nearly every major industrial sector added jobs. The only declining major sectors were temporary help agencies, which is something of a good sign, and the public sector, which was weighed down by local government job losses. Among those who were working, there were also big shifts from part-time work (338,000 fewer workers) to full-time work (553,000 more workers).
As with last month's report, the number of people who were "in the labor force" (people either working or looking for work) dipped slightly. The fall, however, was mostly attributable to decreases in labor force participation among teenagers. Nevertheless, expanded definitions of the jobless rate that include discouraged, marginally attached, and involuntary part-time workers all dropped.
Overall, the figures, although slightly better than expected, suggest only gradual improvement in the employment situation. It will take job gains closer to 400,000 a month to begin making noticeable improvements.