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Jobless Rate Slips to 3-Year Low

Older workers get a welcome slice of the action

Persistent long-term unemployment

For all of 2010 and 2011, the long-term unemployment rate (representing people out of work for six months or more) remained at an unprecedented 40 percent. That broke the record set in June 1983, when the rate hit 26 percent.

"For long-term unemployment, there is no comparison for any period going back to World War II. It's the double whammy of big job losses and the complete collapse of job growth," says John Schmitt, senior economist for the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

While December's jobs growth signaled that the economy may have turned a corner, analysts pointed out that conditions can change.

They cited the first few months of 2011 when the economy started out strong, then waned amid wild stock market swings, the Japanese tsunami, the debt ceiling debacle, the U.S. credit downgrade and Europe's spreading financial mess.

The global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which surveys employer layoffs, reported that 2011 ended with announced job cuts of just over 606,000, 14 percent higher than in 2010.

The government sector and the financial industry took the biggest hits, accounting for 41 percent of all job cuts, according to John A. Challenger, chief executive officer.

He added that the pace of job creation announced in the government report "is still too slow to make a significant dent in the number of unemployed."

Sign for hope

Still, there was sign for hope for 2012 in his company's monthly figures: The number of planned job cuts by employers declined in December to the lowest level since June.

And the latest Manpower Employment Outlook Survey, released in December, offered the most promising hiring outlook since 2008: U.S. employers said they expected hiring to increase by 9 percent in the first quarter of this year, the survey said.

Applicants at a New York job fair - December 2011 unemployment figures

Applicants eagerly attend a New York job fair in December 2011. — Photo by: Mark Lennihan/AP

"Slow but steady momentum has improved employer confidence, which is likely why more employers are planning to hire in the first quarter," Jonas Prising, ManpowerGroup's president for the Americas, said in a statement. "This uptick is encouraging, but the historically high proportion of employers that are unsure of their hiring plans indicates continued uncertainty about the future and ongoing caution when it comes to staffing plans."

Said Paul Dales, of economic analysis firm Capital Economics, "We are not convinced that the pick-up in economic growth will last. As such, jobs growth may not accelerate by much more, leaving the unemployment rate stranded above 8 percent throughout this year."

In most metropolitan areas, unemployment rates in November were lower than they'd been a year earlier, the BLS reported on Wednesday.

The highest rates were in El Centro, Calif. (27.2 percent) and Yuma, Ariz. (23.7 percent). The lowest rate was in Bismarck, N.D. (2.8 percent); Fargo, N.D. (3.1 percent), and Lincoln, Neb. (3.2 percent).

Also of interest: Ways to prove your worth in a tough market. >>

Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.

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