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Experts predict so-so job growth this year

(ran SP, TP, CI editions)

If you look at the current unemployment rate, you might think 2006 will be the year of the job seeker.

But economists note that the unemployment rate doesn't predict the future, and even as some states and industries continue to show job growth, the outlook could be summed up as only fair to middling.

The national unemployment rate inched down to 4.7 percent, from 4.9 percent in December, according to the Labor Department's January jobs report. In 2005, the national rate averaged about 5 percent.

"This year, most of the strong growth will be in the first half of the year, and then it will taper off," said Sophia Koropeckyj, an economist with Moody's "Higher interest rates will start to kick in. That will affect companies' (ability to) borrow. It will affect the housing market and all the various industries that are related to that." projects an average of 183,000 new payroll jobs each month in 2006, compared with the average of about 174,000 in 2005. In the five years ending in 2000, the average monthly job gain was 241,000, Koropeckyj said.

Others had similar projections. The job market won't show "spectacular growth, nor will it weaken that dramatically," said Nigel Gault, an economist at Global Insight in Lexington, Mass.

Some economists are more optimistic.

"We're probably going to see the unemployment rate back down at 4 percent before we're through with 2006," said James Smith, chief economist with Parsec Financial, a money management firm in Asheville, N.C., and finance professor at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Still, Smith tempers that optimism by saying the job market will slow in 2007.

A big unknown right now is the effect of a lower-than-normal labor force participation rate, the proportion of the U.S. population working or looking for work. That rate has been unusually low for this growth phase of an economic cycle.

"The labor force participation rate increased quite a bit right before the recession (March 2001), and then it plummeted, and it's been pretty flat since 2003," Koropeckyj said. "Normally, when there's a recovery, more people start entering the labor force (as) they see opportunities out there . . . but we're not really seeing that yet."

Presumably, those people who have spent time on the sidelines will start entering the job market again as they see increased opportunities. At that point, for the unemployment rate to stay low, the job market is "going to have to absorb those new entrants, plus all the current participants," Koropeckyj said.

But will they come back? That may depend on wages.

"Wage gains have certainly been nothing to shout about," Gault said.

After inflation, "wages were declining last year. To attract people into the labor force, you need to see some growth in real wages to give people the incentive to come back in," he said. "Probably, we'll see a bit better performance of wages this year. That may help to attract some people back into the labor force."

The low participation rate, some say, means that even the current job market is less rosy than it might seem at first glance.

"The unemployment rate is probably closer to 5.5 percent than 4.7 percent, if you make an adjustment for the labor force" participation rate, said Jared Bernstein, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington.

While the overall job market outlook is slightly murky, economists pointed to some clear growth areas.

Moody's projects that restaurants, industrial services (including car-, uniform- and equipment-rental companies and temp agencies, among other things) and medical services (including hospitals, nursing homes and doctors' offices) will add the most new jobs in 2006, adding about 341,000, 336,400 and 315,800 jobs, respectively.

But other industries with much smaller payrolls will show steeper growth on a percentage basis, including Internet, finance and computer software-and-services companies, according to Moody's

Internet companies - including Google, Yahoo, eBay and - are expected to increase their payrolls by 8.2 percent, according to Moody's

Finance companies will grow 5.6 percent, though that growth is not likely to be in the mortgage lending arena, Koropeckyj said, while computer software-and-services companies will increase payrolls 5.3 percent.

Others say the "office economy" is also on a steady rise.

"I've been pretty happy to see the pace of job growth in professional services," Bernstein said. Professional services include legal services, accounting, management and consulting, and administrative services.

Another growth area: mining, which Global Insight projects will increase payrolls by 9.7 percent. Mining includes oil and gas extraction, an industry that is "responding to high energy prices," Gault said.

Not surprisingly, the health care sector is expected to see more of the same job growth.

"Health care (is) going to continue to boom," Bernstein said. "Florida, Georgia, some of the Southwestern states have very strong health-services components, so you'll probably see continued growth there."

The outlook for the construction industry is somewhat murky. With the easing of the residential housing market, there will be declines. projects a 3.7 percent drop in new jobs in the home-building sector.