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Employment History Just Got a Whole Lot Better

By Caroline Baum
February 01, 2013 10:36 AM EST

Today's employment report for January was pretty ordinary, what with its 157,000 increase in non-farm payrolls and slight uptick to 7.9 percent in the unemployment rate. But the past got a good deal brighter, courtesy of the Labor Department's annual benchmark revisions based on complete unemployment tax records for 2012.

The level of non-farm payrolls for March 2012 was revised up by 422,000. Job gains for November and December were bumped by 127,000, a result of both benchmarking and a more complete survey sample from the prior months.

Half of the months in 2012 now show a job increase of 200,000 or more. In the fourth quarter alone, 675,000 private sector jobs were created, making it the second best quarter since the recession ended in June 2009.

An increase in construction employment confirmed the improvement seen in the housing sector. One third of the 296,000 gain in construction jobs since the January 2011 low occurred in the last four months.

Problems remain, to be sure. Long-term unemployment is still high: 4.7 million Americans have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more. The average duration of unemployment has just started to fall, from more than 40 weeks last year to 35.3 in January. And the labor force participation rate (63.6 percent) is still near a three-decade low.

Still, there is some room for optimism even though January's numbers were so-so. Like the strength in the economy's cyclical sectors in the fourth quarter, solid private job growth calls into question the idea that "uncertainty" was holding businesses back. It's easy to forget amid such a slow recovery that the business of America is business, as President Calvin Coolidge said. If businesses can find a way to make it happen, they will.

(Caroline Baum is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)

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