By the slow-moving standards of the current recovery, the national employment report released Friday was decidedly upbeat.
The U.S. unemployment rate fell to a five-year low of 7.0% in November from 7.3% in October, and the pace of hiring in the U.S. was stronger than expected, raising hopes that economy is gathering pace ahead of a new year.
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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation added an estimated 203,000 new non-farm jobs last month. Forecasters, inured to the sluggish pace of recent years, mostly expected only 180,000 or so.
The gains were all the more encouraging because employers picked up the pace of hiring despite the perpetual political gridlock over the national debt limit, which has deadlocked congressional fiscal reform and briefly raised the specter of a debt default, and the federal government shutdown in October.
In the private sector, which added 196,000 new jobs, gains were spread widely across sectors ranging from manufacturing to construction and health care as well as relatively low-pay sectors such as hotels and hospitality.
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Employment also rose in the government sector, boosted by hundreds of thousands of federal employees who returned to work following the 16-day partial shutdown of the government, the agency reported.
Even if the return of federal employees exaggerated November’s overall job gains, Friday’s report included other positive signs.
At 7.0%, the jobless rate dropped to its lowest level since November 2008, a time when the economy was beginning a sharp downward slide into the last recession.
During the recovery, the unemployment rate often fell for the wrong reasons — under a quirk of U.S. statistical collection, the rate falls when unemployed Americans have given up looking for work, which removes them from the tally of unemployed. In November, however, the decline reflected a measurable surge in hiring, with an estimated 455,000 people joining the workforce in November.
And for those who already have a job, the average workweek increased, meaning there was more work to go around, while average hourly pay rose 4 cents.
We certainly need a lot more of this kind of news if the economy is going to return to full employment anytime soon. But that doesn’t dilute the fact that we have something to celebrate in this latest employment report. Here’s hoping that the numbers are not eventually revised downward.