WASHINGTON – The unemployment rate dropped sharply last month to 9 percent, the lowest level in nearly two years. But the economy generated only 36,000 net new jobs, the fewest in four months.
The January report illustrates how job growth remains the economy's weakest spot, even as other economic indicators point to a recovery that is strengthening.
Friday's report offered a conflicting picture on hiring. Unemployment fell because the Labor Department's household survey determined that more than a half-million people without jobs found work. The department conducts a separate survey of businesses, which showed tepid job creation. The two surveys sometimes diverge.
Severe winter weather likely reduced the number of jobs created. Harsh snowstorms last month cut into construction employment, which fell by 32,000, the most since May. Transportation and warehousing also fell by 38,000 — the most in a year.
In one bright spot, manufacturing added 49,000 jobs, the most since August 1998. And retailers added 28,000 jobs, the largest number in a year.
The unemployment rate has fallen by eight-tenths of a percentage point in the past two months. That's the steepest two-month drop in nearly 53 years.
But part of that drop has occurred as many of those out of work gave up on their job searches. When unemployed people stop looking for jobs, the government no longer counts them as unemployed.
The number of people unemployed fell by more than 600,000 in January to 13.9 million. That's still about double the total that were out of work before the recession began in December 2007.
The January report also includes the government's annual revisions to the employment data, which showed that fewer jobs were created in 2010 than previously thought. All told, about 950,000 net new jobs were added last year, down from a previous estimate of 1.1 million. The economy lost about 8 million jobs in 2008 and 2009.
In the past three months, the economy generated an average of 83,000 net jobs per month. That's not enough to keep up with population growth.