Shrugging off the effects of Hurricane Sandy and the looming fiscal impasse in Washington, the economy created 146,000 jobs in November, well above the level economists had been expecting.
The report released Friday by the Labor Department also showed the unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent, the lowest level in four years.
Among specific industries, the retail sector was especially healthy, adding 53,000 jobs as the holiday shopping season approached. In the last three months, retail employment has increased by 140,000.
One notable point of weakness was the manufacturing sector, which lost 7,000 jobs in the month. Demand from Europe and other overseas markets has weakened recently, while some manufacturing companies have held off on spending as political leaders square off in Washington over how to cut the deficit.
By the widest measure of joblessness, unemployment also eased slightly: After factoring in people looking for work as well as those forced to take part-time positions because full-time work wasn’t available, the total unemployed fell to 14.4 percent in November from 14.6 percent in October.
The report for November was relatively strong, economists said, and showed fewer effects from Hurricane Sandy than had been expected. In Friday’s announcement, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said the storm did “not substantively impact the national employment and unemployment estimates for November.”
Ethan Harris, co-head of global economics at Bank of America of Merrill Lynch, said: “It’s a pretty solid report. It’s consistent with a slow recovery in the job market.”
“It’s encouraging that with the fiscal cliff looming, the corporate sector seems willing to hire even with the worries about what’s going in Washington,” Harris said.
If the budget impasse cannot be resolved this month, however, it is likely that jobs growth will weaken early next year, he added. “The fiscal cliff is a very dangerous game,” he said.
Indeed, other economists remained cautious about the jobs outlook.
“It’s not something to get too excited about,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist for IHS Global Insight.”The number is 146,000 and the average so far this year is 151,000. We’re pretty much in line with what we’ve been doing.”
Gault said Hurricane Sandy’s impact may have been seen in construction, where the number of jobs fell by 20,000, as well as in manufacturing.