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As 2013 Begins, A 'Pretty Positive' Job Outlook

If you're searching for work in this new year, the Labor Department's final jobs report for 2012 suggests: The trend is your friend in 2013.

The jobs outlook is actually "pretty positive," said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an employment consulting firm.

Challenger said that, after 34 straight months of job growth, the positive trend is well established and likely to continue. The Labor Department said Friday that in December, employers added 155,000 jobs, in line with economists' forecasts. Though the pace is less than robust, its steadiness is reassuring, especially given recent events, he said.

As 2012 wound down, the economy had to absorb the impact of both Hurricane Sandy and the fiscal-cliff uncertainty in Washington. And yet economists don't see much evidence that either the winds from the Atlantic Ocean or the hot air from Capitol Hill were strong enough to blow out the recovery.

"When we look back over the last 12 months, we see it's not much different from 2011," said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist with IHS Global Insight, a forecasting firm. That steadiness represents "moderate improvement" in the U.S. economy, he said.

"It's disappointing compared with previous recoveries" when jobs snapped back more quickly, Gault noted. But the pace has been good enough to suggest that in 2013, many job seekers will land paychecks, he said.

Challenger agreed, and spotted another good sign: "Layoffs have been really light lately."

"Companies did a lot of heavy cutting in the recession, but now they are holding onto their people," Challenger said. "If you are in a job today, you are relatively safe."

In the year ahead, many of those current job holders will retire as large numbers of baby boomers age out of the workforce, he said. "The outlook is better than people give it credit for because the boomers are retiring," he said.

Both Challenger and Gault agreed that in the new year, the health-care sector will continue its role as the top job generator. The Labor Department said that in December, employers added 45,000 medical-related jobs.

"Health care, as usual, was one good place to be in 2012," Gault said.

The leisure and hospitality industries also have been growing, with restaurants and drinking places adding 38,000 workers last month.

"These aren't high-paying jobs," Gault said. "But they do reflect the economic recovery. People felt they could afford to spend a little more money" on eating out and taking vacations, he said.

Challenger said that besides health-care workers and waiters, the people with good prospects in 2013 include people with "core" skills, like accountants and engineers, and blue-collar workers who have been trained as welders, pipe fitters and truck drivers.

The Labor Department report showed that over both 2011 and 2012, monthly job increases averaged 153,000. In December, the unemployment rate held steady at 7.8 percent — the same as the November rate, following a tenth-of-a-point upward revision.

The pace of improvement may feel painfully slow for the more than 12 million people still seeking work in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But it's been fast enough to whittle down the jobless rate from its October 2009 peak of 10 percent.

Challenger urges job seekers to stay optimistic. "This was a deep and difficult recession, so it's taking a long time to pull out of it," he said. "But we're plodding along."

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