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Originally published January 23, 2014 at 11:07 AM | Page modified January 24, 2014 at 2:00 PM

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State jobless rate takes ‘a baby step in the right direction’

Washington’s job market ended 2013 on a high note as the unemployment rate fell to 6.6 percent, but the shrinking labor force remains a concern.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Washington’s job market ended 2013 on a sound note as employers statewide added 4,800 jobs in December, pushing down the unemployment rate to a five-year low of 6.6 percent, according to a new report.

Labor-market experts consider a monthly jobs gain of 5,000 statewide to be average, so December’s increase was more or less in line with a modest economic recovery.

Locally, the outlook was quite a bit brighter: The Seattle area, which includes Bellevue and Everett, added 10,100 new jobs last month, led by solid hiring at an array of service-sector businesses.

Local joblessness fell to 5.3 percent in December from 5.6 percent a month earlier, the state Employment Security Department said Thursday.

The report capped a turbulent year in which local joblessness plunged as low as 4.7 percent last June, then climbed as high as 5.7 percent in October.

Joblessness across the state dropped to its lowest level since November 2008, when it was 6.5 percent, although it was tempered by a worrisome decline in the labor force.

“We’re not heading southward, we’re heading northward,” said state labor economist Paul Turek. “It was a baby step in the right direction.”

A significant cause for concern continues to be a declining statewide labor force, which fell to a five-year low of 3.46 million last month, suggesting that hiring is not yet strong enough to pull discouraged workers back into the job market.

Locally, it was a different story, as the Seattle-area labor force grew to 1.53 million, up from 1.51 million a year ago.

“Seattle tends to go its own way because it’s highly dependent on aerospace and high-tech. Sometimes it grows more quickly than the rest of the state, sometimes it grows more slowly,” said local economist Dick Conway. “The rest of the state historically grows like the rest of the nation.”

Without those two growth engines, he added, “Seattle grows about as fast as the nation.”

On a year-over-year basis, the Seattle-area economy had job growth of 3.2 percent in December, compared with 1.4 percent for the state and 1.6 percent for the nation. Joblessness nationwide fell three-tenths of a percentage point to 6.7 percent last month.

Sectors with the biggest December gains on a seasonally adjusted basis in Washington were professional and business services, up 2,900 jobs, followed by education and health services, up 2,000, and a catchall category called “other services,” such as auto-body shops and nail salons, up 1,400.

The state’s wholesale-trade sector added 1,300 jobs, while the construction and aerospace-manufacturing sectors each added 800 jobs.

The largest losses were in government, down 1,500 jobs, and nondurable goods manufacturing, down 1,400. State agencies and public colleges accounted for all the government job losses.

“Our economy is still doing pretty well,” Conway said.

Pervis Willis, who manages the WorkSource employment center in Renton, said he has noticed a pickup in hiring of the job seekers he meets at work. But for some, finding jobs that pay as well as before the recession can be tough.

“You may have grown accustomed to making a certain wage. The reality is you may not be able to find a similar job at the same pay,” Willis said. “It probably would be around 85 percent or 90 percent.”

Maple Valley resident Ronnie Kipling, a U.S. Army veteran, was laid off in October from a seasonal job with King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks. After getting a commercial truck-driving license, he landed a job at Bridgestone in Auburn earlier this month.

“The pay is a little less, but it’s great experience and it looks good on a résumé,” Kipling said. “It’s full benefits and solid full-time work.”

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or On Twitter: @amyemartinez

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