The U.S. economy added a disappointing 103,000 jobs last month, but still enough to push the jobless rate down to a 19-month low of 9.4 percent, the Department of Labor reported this morning.
Many economists had predicted at least 150,000 new jobs for December. The lower unemployment rate reflected both the new hires and people who dropped out of the job search.
"It's a bit of a mixed bag," Ryan Sweet, an economist at Moody's Analytics, told the Associated Press. "Many analysts hoped to see larger job gains, and the drop in the unemployment rate is unlikely to be sustained.
"The labor market ended last year with a bit of a thud," he added. "But I think things will get much better this year."
The numbers improved on an even more disappointing November when payrolls added only 71,000 jobs, pushing the unemployment rate up to 9.8 percent from 9.6 percent in October.
"Based on the retail sales numbers," said Steve Bronars, senior economist at Welch Consulting, "people thought the numbers would be better. November was a little bit surprising and a little bit disappointing."
The number of layoffs in the past month also declined to a two-year low, the Labor Department said Thursday.
The labor market appeared rosier for December, even though millions had grappled with the possibility of losing benefits as Congress waffled over extending unemployment.
Earlier this week, the private payroll firm Automatic Data Processing reported an increase of nearly 300,000 jobs for the month.
Another area of job growth appeared to be the hospitality industry, one of the bright spots for job seekers during the so-called Great Recession.
"The hospitality industry is second in size only to the federal government," said Patrice Rice, founder and president of the national recruiting firm Patrice and Associates. "Food in America is here to stay.
"We have over 700 opened jobs as hospitality managers across the country," Rice added.
The figure has been consistent regardless of the labor climate.
Other places adding jobs included discount retailer Dollar General and railroad company Union Pacific, which were expected to hire around 10,000 people in 2011, according to The Associated Press.
"Throughout 2010, we saw gradual growth across a variety of sectors," CareerBuilder.com spokesperson Jennifer Grasz said. "What we're seeing is businesses are investing in individuals that will drive top line growth."
The sectors with double-digit growth included sales, health care and information technology.
"The IT sector is up the highest, 51 percent, because when you think about IT, those positions help to cut costs and drive innovation that will help revenue streams," Grasz said. "You have the proliferation of smartphones and the Internet, and increased emphasis on business analytics, and that's driving the sector."
But with unemployment figures that range from a low of 15 million to a high of 27 million, the recovery is not close to complete.
"We don't expect the unemployment rate to move much in one month," Bronars said. "It's going to take people a while to find employment. We shouldn't be surprised in the coming months if the unemployment rate stays above 9 percent for many months to come."
The recovery could take years.
"It's a lot easier for companies to lay off workers than to hire workers," Bronars said.
The labor market is slower to recovery than the gross domestic product or stock market, he said, because companies are looking to fill positions that have the right skills and qualifications.
As for whether the new numbers are a sign of where things are headed, Bronars said, "You can never really tell with one month of numbers."