WASHINGTON - The job market is lurching toward improvement.
It just has a long way to go.
The outlook for jobs became a bit less bleak Friday when the government released January's unemployment rate, showing an unexpected decline from 10 percent to 9.7 percent. It was the first drop in seven months.
Still, the government now estimates 8.4 million jobs vanished in the Great Recession. And economists say the nation will be lucky to get back 1.5 million of them this year. They also warn it will take until the middle of the decade for the job market to return to normal.
The economy is growing, and normally job creation would be strengthening. But the job market is weighed down by employers who remain slow to hire because consumers are not spending enough.
Companies worry about their prospects once government stimulus aid fades. They also fret about possibly higher costs related to taxes or health care measures from Congress and statehouses.
The unemployment rate fell to its lowest level since August because a Labor Department survey of households found a sharp rise in the number of Americans with jobs. The survey found that 541,000 more Americans had jobs last month.
But those gains resulted from seasonal adjustments to the data, which are made each month and are especially large in January because of heavy seasonal changes in hiring, including holiday-season jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
President Barack Obama said the unexpected drop in the unemployment rate was "cause for hope but not celebration." Speaking at a small business in a Washington suburb, Obama said the figures show modest progress, but he cautioned that the data will continue to fluctuate for months.
By the White House's own forecast, the unemployment rate will average 10 percent this year, up from 9.3 percent last year, a 26-year high. By the 2012 presidential election, the jobless rate will still be elevated - averaging 8.2 percent. Normal is around 5.5 percent or 6 percent.
Even with some improvements on the hiring front, 14.8 million Americans were unemployed in January. The unemployment rate for blacks reached 16.5 percent in January, the highest since 1984. And the number of people out of work six months or longer set a record of 6.3 million.
LONG ISLAND UNEMPLOYMENT
Long Island lost 21,800 jobs in the 12 months that ended in December, according to the latest data from the New York State Labor Department released on Jan. 21.
The figure is based on year-to-year comparisons because the state Labor Department's jobs data, unlike the federal government's, isn't seasonally adjusted to account for unusual rises or declines in a particular month or season. The Island's unemployment rate ticked up to 7 percent in December from 6.8 percent in November, according to that same report. The next report from the state is due in March.