D.C. area jobless rate dropped to 5.1 percent in December

The unemployment rate in the Washington area dipped to 5.1 percent from 5.4 percent in December, according to Labor Department data released Wednesday, even as the region continued a pattern of only middling job growth.

The metropolitan area added 25,800 jobs between December 2012 and December 2013. The greatest job growth again came from the leisure and hospitality sector, which gained 15,300 jobs amid a boom in local restaurants and bars. But the burst of jobs in that category somewhat masks the gloominess in other segments of the economy, economists say.

“If one strips away the growth in leisure and hospitality, there hasn’t been much growth in private business at all. And so it’s important not to overstate the progress in the local labor markets,” said Anirban Basu, chief executive of Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic consulting firm.

And since the jobs in this industry tend to be relatively low-paying ones, that could present other challenges to the regional economic recovery.

“I think this is a continuing pattern of deteriorating buying power or consumer spending potential within the economy,” said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

The region’s largest industry, professional services, added 2,600 positions. That’s an improvement over the narrow job losses recorded in that category in the October report, but it is a meager level of growth that won’t help push the regional economic recovery into a higher gear.

Still, economists and local business leaders forecast that job growth will pick up somewhat in this category in 2014, in part because Congress reached a deal on the federal budget that gave employers a newfound sense of clarity. Paul Unger, chief executive of McLean-based executive search firm Paul Unger NBS Search, said he has noticed that companies have become less cautious about hiring in recent weeks.

“January, in my world, started with a bang,” Unger said. “I think that there was a tremendous pent-up demand that once a budget was passed . . . companies began to loosen the purse strings a little bit.”

Another important sector, government, shed 3,000 jobs during the year ending in December. In the federal government subcategory, the picture was bleaker, with 8,400 positions lost.

The retail industry added 6,400 jobs, its largest increase since 2011. The financial activities industry, which includes real estate agents and mortgage financiers, gained 6,600 positions, an increase probably fueled by improvement in the local housing market.

The education and health services industry added 3,600 jobs, while the information sector added 1,100 positions.

The jobless rate in the Washington area compares favorably to the national rate, which dipped to 6.7 percent in December. On Friday, the Labor Department is scheduled to release its unemployment report for January, providing one of the first snapshots of how the economy is faring in 2014.

The Labor Department releases seasonally adjusted jobless rates for metropolitan areas, which allows for those figures to be compared month to month. However, the numbers of job gains and losses are not seasonally adjusted, so those monthly figures can only be compared on a year-over-year basis.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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