Last year also was the first since 1999 in which employers boosted their payrolls every month.
Employers added 157,000 nonfarm, payroll jobs in December, just enough to keep pace with population growth and slightly better than the month before. The Labor Department also raised by 34,000 its previous estimates of the combined job gains in November and October. The monthly numbers are adjusted for seasonal hiring patterns.
Manufacturers added 76,000 jobs in 2004, the first annual gain in seven years. Even so, the total of 14.4 million U.S. manufacturing jobs in December was far below the 17 million that existed when the recession started in March 2001.
Manufacturing employment plunged during the recession, in part because of dramatic productivity gains. Employers are still finding ways to squeeze more goods and services out of their existing workforces, John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in an interview. He added that it "seems that there is still plenty of oomph left" for further productivity gains.
That has made the job hunt difficult for many former factory workers. The unemployment rate for production workers rose to 7.0 percent in December, up from 6.6 percent a year before, the department data show.
The overall job market improvement did not benefit all racial or ethnic groups equally last year. The unemployment rate for blacks rose to 10.8 percent last month, from 10.2 percent a year before. The rate for whites fell to 4.6 percent, from 5 percent over the year before; the rate for Latinos was unchanged at 6.6 percent.
Meanwhile, workers' pay is rising more slowly than consumer prices. Average hourly wages rose 2.7 percent last year, to $15.86 in December. But the Labor Department's consumer price index rose 3.5 percent in the 12 months that ended in November, the most recent month for which figures are available. Prices were propelled upward in large part by higher energy and food costs.
Foman A. Robinson III, 30, of Woodbridge, said he just took on a second job because he "needed the money."
Robinson earns $9.95 an hour, plus benefits, in his full-time job driving a truck in the evenings. Since Tuesday, he is also earning $15 an hour, working 20 hours a week, in a temporary job doing administrative work for a graphic design firm.
Nathalie Philippe, 24, of Chicago, who has a degree in finance, said she is working two jobs waiting tables because she has yet to find a full-time job in her field. She works 35 hours a week earning $3.30 an hour plus tips.
"I knew it would be hard, but I didn't think it would be impossible," she said. "It gets discouraging."
Several economists expect job growth to continue this year, though the pace may slow as economic growth cools.
"In the rear-view mirror, the year as a whole was quite favorable," for the job market, said Rich Yamarone, director of economic research at Argus Research. "Unfortunately, looking through the windshield, we have a couple of bumps in the road ahead."