The Steady Eddy Jobs Picture

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By Paula Dwyer

Steady as she goes. That about sums up the December payrolls report released this morning. Employers added 155,000 workers last month following a revised 161,000 advance in November. The unemployment rate held at 7.8 percent. (November unemployment had previously been revised up from 7.7 percent.)

For the glass-half-full analysis, the U.S. Labor Department gathered the numbers before Congress and President Barack Obama agreed on a budget deal. Considering that corporate executives kept adding jobs -- despite bitter complaints that the fiscal-cliff shenanigans were holding back the economy -- the latest figures signal that the Jan. 1 budget agreement will unleash even more hiring.

December payrolls, moreover, exceeded expectations: The median estimate of 82 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News called for an increase of 152,000. Even average hourly earnings climbed 2.1 percent, to $23.73, from a year earlier. That is the biggest gain in a year.

While it isn't breaking any records, the economy created 1.84 million jobs for a second straight year. And that includes continued layoffs by government at all levels.

True, the December figures may have risen because of construction following superstorm Sandy. Yet other factors, including increased consumer confidence and stronger retail sales, are also driving labor-market improvements. For example, Macy's Inc., the second-biggest U.S. department-store company, reported a 4.1 percent rise in December sales at stores open at least a year, while Gap Inc., the largest U.S. specialty-apparel retailer, had a 5 percent increase.

Another good sign can be found in the "U-6" figures -- a broader measure of unemployment because it includes those actively hunting for work, the jobless who aren't looking but say they would take a job, and part-time workers who would prefer a full-time job. In December, the number of part-time workers who would like full-time jobs declined by 220,000, probably because they found full-time positions.

(Paula Dwyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow her on Twitter.)

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-0- Jan/04/2013 15:23 GMT