But a closer look reveals that nearly one-fifth of the jobs created were in construction, marking only the third time since the recession ended in June 2009 that the industry has added 30,000 workers or more. The surge capped one of the largest three-month gains the sector has seen since the recession began in December 2007.
The return of construction jobs is an especially critical component of the economic recovery. That’s partly because of the sheer number of jobs lost — more than 2 million since 2007 — but also because of fears that many of those workers’ skills may not translate to other industries, rendering them permanently unemployable.
“These jobs have been the backbone of the middle class for many, many years,” said Arne L. Kalleberg, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of “Good Jobs, Bad Jobs.” “Now they’re coming back.”
The jobs report follows several other encouraging data sets that show year-end momentum in the economy. Automakers reported surprisingly robust sales last month and consumers piled into shopping malls, unfazed by the political wrangling over the “fiscal cliff.” But economists say they are particularly heartened that the uptick in construction coincides with new strength and stability in the housing market, suggesting the gains are more sustainable.
The number of new homes under construction topped 800,000 in September for the first time in four years and stayed there through the fall, according to government data. Permits are being sought on more than 900,000 homes. Private estimates show that housing prices in hard-hit Phoenix have risen for 13 straight months, while San Diego has increased for nine months.
“We underbuilt houses from 2006 until this year. At some point, there is a long-term catch-up where you have to go out and build a lot of new houses,” said John J. Canally Jr., economist and investment strategist for LPL Financial.
That is likely to help address the persistently high unemployment rate among young men, one of the most recalcitrant problems of the recovery. More than a quarter of 16-to-19-year-olds are out of work, while nearly 14 percent of those ages 20 to 24 do not have a job.
“By and large, those guys have been left on the sidelines the last few years,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, “and construction will give them much more of an option in 2013.”
There have been false starts before, however: A similar jump last winter gave way by spring, when the sector shed 53,000 jobs.