The nation's civilian unemployment rate dropped from 7.1 to 7 percent in November amid signs that the steady decline in manufacturing jobs caused by the nation's large trade deficit has bottomed out.
Total civilian employment last month edged up 60,000, bringing the number of employed to 107.9 million, according to the Labor Department's survey of households. The 7 percent rate tied the lowest jobless rate reached during the Reagan administration.
Since the economic recovery began three years ago this month, 10.1 million jobs have been added in the United States, an average of 280,000 a month, according to a separate Labor Department survey of businesses, which showed greater job growth than the household survey. The number of people without work fell from 11.9 million in November 1982 -- the end of the recession -- to 8.1 million last month, although the ranks of the unemployed has risen in the past year.
"With an economy capable of generating hundreds of thousands of new jobs each month, our nation has an underlying strength virtually unmatched around the world," said Labor Secretary William E. Brock. "In many European countries, no net new jobs have been created in the past 10 years."
The United States also has added nearly 30 million jobs since 1970, outstripping the combined employment increases of Japan, West Germany, France and Britain, the Labor Department said.
Manufacturing jobs, which had dropped this year by 325,000 through September, rose by more than 60,000 in October and another 30,000 last month, the Labor Department said. However, last month -- and since the recovery began -- the creation of services jobs has far outpaced those in manufacturing.
"I think it is important to note . . . that no further factory job loss has occurred in the last two months," said Janet L. Norwood, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overtime hours at factories increased in November, Norwood said, suggesting "future hiring activity since employers usually increase hours before hiring new employes."
Private economists agreed that the worst is probably over for U.S. manufacturers, which have contended that competition from imports caused them to lose market share in the United States and overseas. The outcry from manufacturers and their deep job losses has fed the protectionist fervor on Capitol Hill.
Economists blamed the high value of the dollar for many of manufacturers' ills, because as the dollar rose it made foreign goods relatively cheaper than American-made products, making it harder for U.S. firms to sell their goods abroad. Moreover, U.S. companies competing domestically with less expensive imports were prevented from raising prices, thus reducing their profits, economists said.
Since February, the dollar's value has fallen more than 20 percent. Much of that drop has occurred since September, when the Reagan administration, concerned about mounting pressure in Congress to block imports, agreed with four of its allies to cooperate in pushing the dollar down.
As a result, import prices have begun to rise and some economists predict that imports will start declining and U.S. exports will begin to show improvement in the spring.
"The tremendous pressure from imports has created, up until very recently, very significant downward pressure on manufacturing operating profit margins," said economist Alan Greenspan.
"The layoffs that were so pronounced up until very recently were manufacturers' endeavors to lower break-even points and improve profitability.
"They have in recent months succeeded," Greenspan continued. "Operating-profit margins have turned up and the pressure is now much less. What you're seeing is a restoration of some of the job loss which was overdone."
Profit margins have improved in part because manufacturers have begun to reap the benefits of a major buying spree in labor-saving equipment earlier in the recovery, Greenspan said.
"In addition, there's just been a lot of restructuring of companies, where they battened down the hatches against the impact of import competition," he said.
Lawrence Chimerine, chief economist for Chase Econometrics, was slightly more cautious. "It's probably safe to say that manufacturing employment is probably bottoming out. It's premature to conclude there's a major turnaround, although I would probably agree that the loss of manufacturing jobs is bottoming out."
While many of the manufacturers posted small job gains, the machinery and chemicals industries, which had been particularly hard hit by imports, continued their monthly employment declines.
A spokesman for the AFL-CIO described the rise in manufacturing jobs as an "insignificantly small increase" and said that the unemployment rate is still too high compared with the 5-to-6 percent unemployment rate during the Carter and Ford presidencies.
The unemployment rate declined from a high this year of 7.4 percent in January and hovered at 7.3 percent for six months before dropping further.
A broader measure of the unemployment that includes members of the armed services stationed in the United States dropped in November from 7 percent to 6.9 percent.
If people working part-time who want to work full time are considered, the civilian unemployment rate would have been 9.4 percent in November.
The unemployment rate of men was 6 percent in November for the fourth consecutive month. The rate for women was 6.4 percent for the second consecutive month, and the rate for teen-agers dropped from 20.1 to 18.4 percent.
For whites, the rate declined from 6.1 to 5.9 percent. It rose for blacks from 15 to 15.9 percent. The rate for Hispanics dropped from 11.3 to 10.7 percent, the Labor Department said.