(CN) – American employers ended the last decade by adding 145,000 jobs in December, while the unemployment rate held steady at a 50-year low.
The number of new positions last month falls well short of the revised 256,000 jobs added in November, but that gain was driven largely by auto workers returning to work after a General Motors strike.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate stayed at a half-century low of 3.5%, according to a Labor Department report released Friday.
Elise Gould, senior economist at the nonprofit think tank Economic Policy Institute, said in a phone interview that while new jobs in December dropped off from the month before, the numbers are still solid.
“We’ve seen the unemployment rate come down, and for the right reasons,” she said. “People are coming back to the labor force, they are getting jobs as opposed to leaving because they despair. 145,000 is still more than enough to keep up with population growth and pull in those workers from the sidelines.”
Average hourly wages rose modestly with a 2.9% increase over this time last year, down from 3.1% in November, and currently stand at $28.32 an hour.
Gould said wages haven’t kept up as the current economic expansion continues in its 11th year.
“The slowdown is a little bit surprising given the other indicators in the economy,” she said. “You would think that employers would have to work a little harder to get the workers they want as workers become more scarce. The fact that that’s not happening is certainly a problem for workers and is a little bit puzzling.”
She noted it will take some time to see the effects of higher minimum wages that became effective in several states this month.
Overall, Gould said 2019 was a solid year even though the economy cooled somewhat compared to 2018.
“The unemployment rate coming down continues to be a positive sign,” she said. “It’s obviously a lot better than we were back in 2009.”
Looking ahead, the economist anticipates another healthy year.
“It may slow but I think there is still some slack out there to soak up,” Gould said. “I’m optimistic we’ll still see solid numbers in 2020.”
According to the Labor Department report, retail companies added 41,200 jobs in December, compared to gains of 40,000 in the leisure and hospitality sector and 33,900 in the health care and social assistance industry.
The manufacturing sector saw a decrease of 12,000 positions while mining and logging lost 9,000 jobs.