WASHINGTON -- The nation's unemployment rate fell to a four-year low of 7.7 percent in November as employers added an unexpectedly large but still moderate 146,000 jobs during the month, despite the disruptions caused by Hurricane Sandy.
Although the severe storms in the Northeast in late October clipped economic activity and kept many workers at home, they had no major effect on the monthly employment statistics, the Labor Department said Friday.
Many analysts had forecast unemployment to rise to 8 percent with job growth of less than 100,000 for November.
The better-than-expected job gains came in part from unusually strong hiring by retailers, possibly reflecting the early start of the holiday shopping season this year.
Led by clothing stores, retailers added 53,000 jobs during the month. That was the highest for a November in five years and marked the second straight month of 50,000-plus payroll gains for the industry, reflecting the recent pickup in consumer confidence and expectations for solid holiday sales.
Manufacturing, however, shed 7,000 jobs last month, and the construction sector cut payrolls by 20,000, despite the recovering housing market and an increase in homebuilding.
Although the latest jobs report was on the whole upbeat given the expectations, the government revised downward the job-growth numbers for September and October by a total of 49,000. Since the beginning of the year, job growth has averaged 151,000 a month, similar to last year's pace. That's good enough to keep up with population growth and then some, but not nearly strong enough to bring down the unemployment rate quickly.
The jobless rate in November was the lowest since December 2008, when the figure was 7.3 percent. The drop last month, however, came as the labor force shrank, meaning that it wasn't so much job growth that pulled down the unemployment rate as it was the fact there were fewer people in the labor market.The employment outlook is muddled by the ongoing political wrangling over the "fiscal cliff"-- automatic tax hikes and government spending cuts that kick in next year unless lawmakers take action. Business investments have softened lately, and some companies say they are holding back on making new hires until the picture becomes clearer.