WASHINGTON – For a second straight month, weak U.S. job growth has raised concern that the economy has lost the vigor it showed late last year.
A tepid gain of 113,000 jobs in January followed December’s puny increase of 75,000, far below last year’s average monthly gain of 194,000.
Yet the jobs report the government issued Friday offered cause for optimism. Solid hiring last month in areas like manufacturing and construction point to underlying strength.
And in a healthy sign, more people began looking for jobs in January. A sizable 115,000 formerly unemployed people also said they found jobs. Their hiring reduced the unemployment rate to 6.6 percent, the lowest in more than five years.
Most economists say they think hiring will strengthen during 2014 as the economy improves further.
Job growth “clearly has downshifted over the past two months,” said Doug Handler, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight. “But we still believe the economic fundamentals remain strong and … forecast an acceleration of growth later in the year.”
Friday’s jobs data suggest that the economy may slow in the first few months of the year from its robust 3.7 percent annual pace in the second half of 2013. The hiring figures follow other signs of a possibly softening economy. A survey of manufacturing firms showed that factory expansion slowed last month. A measure of forthcoming home sales fell.
The jobs report offered some hints that hiring could return to last year’s healthier levels in coming months.
To begin with, the unemployment rate is at its lowest point since October 2008, just as the financial crisis was erupting. The rate fell because many of the unemployed found work. And the influx of people seeking jobs – a sign of optimism – was an improvement from December. In that month, the unemployment rate fell only because about 350,000 people stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed.
Another positive sign: Manufacturers, construction firms and mines added a combined 76,000 jobs last month – the most since January 2006. Goods-producing employers like those tend to hire only when they’re confident in the economy.