State officials on Thursday reported a second consecutive month of significant job gains and a declining unemployment rate, which now stands at its lowest level since August 2008, the month prior to the financial meltdown.

Minnesota employers added 9,100 jobs in December, and the state’s unemployment rate dipped 0.1 percent to 5.5 percent, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Minnesota’s unemployment rate remains well below the national rate of 7.8 percent, which held steady from the prior month.

DEED previously reported that Minnesota employers added 10,800 jobs in November as the unemployment rate dipped 0.2 percent to 5.7 percent. Those figures have since been revised to 12,300 jobs gained and a jobless rate of 5.6 percent.

The solid gains in November and December followed a month of job losses; Minnesota employers cut 4,800 positions in October.

“The state labor market is growing at a brisk pace, gaining more than 21,000 jobs in the final two months of 2012,” Katie Clark Sieben, who replaced Mark Phillips as DEED commissioner in October, said in a statement. “Minnesota is recovering jobs well ahead of the rest of the country and is positioned to stay on that course in coming months.”

Steve Hine, research director for DEED’s labor market information office, said during a Thursday conference call that Minnesota has regained more than 70 percent of the jobs that it lost during the recession. Over the past year, Minnesota has added about 50,700 jobs, which represents a growth rate of 1.9 percent and outpaces the national growth rate of 1.4 percent.

The trade, transportation, and utilities sector gained 3,900 jobs in December, the most of any industry. Hine said that the sector’s growth was driven “almost entirely” by a second consecutive month of strong gains in retail jobs.

The other sectors to add jobs were professional and business services (2,500), education and health services (1,800), manufacturing (1,400), information (1,400), government (900), leisure and hospitality (800), and financial activities (600). Logging and mining, meanwhile, held steady.

Among other positive signs: Seasonally adjusted new claims for unemployment declined by 1,160 in December to about 23,500. The length of the average work week, meanwhile, climbed a half-hour to 33.7 hours per week.

The only sectors to lose jobs in December were construction (3,500) and other services (700). The loss in construction jobs in effect offsets gains in previous months and can be attributed to a warm November that led to a delay in the industry’s winter shutdown, Hine said.

Over the past year, the education and health services sector has seen the largest gains, having added 22,700 jobs, followed by trade, transportation, and utilities, which is up 5,600 jobs. In fact, the only sector to lose jobs year-over-year is logging and mining, which shed 20 positions.

Hine voiced concern, however, about the relatively stagnant professional business services sector, which has an annual growth rate of only 0.7 percent. Higher-paying jobs in the sector—such as accounting and legal services positions—have fared better, while temporary employment has slowed down. A possible positive explanation, however, could be that a decline in temporary jobs means employers are relying less on short-term help and hiring more permanent workers, Hine said.

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