CHAMPAIGN — — Illinois' unemployment rate dropped in December, the fourth straight month of declines, the state Department of Employment Security said Friday.
State officials said that, in spite of a reduction in the number of jobs in the state last month, the employment picture is improving. But experts outside state government aren't so sure.
December's jobless rate fell to 8.6 percent from 8.7 percent the previous month, the Illinois Department of Employment Security said in its monthly report on statewide unemployment. The national unemployment rate for December was 6.7 percent, its lowest point since late 2008.
The department said Friday that, even as the jobless rate fell, Illinois lost a net 3,200 jobs in December. Officials blamed brutal cold for decreases in, among other areas, construction jobs.
But they pointed out that the number of people in the state's workforce was up by 62,200, or 1.1 percent, over a year earlier and that some key areas such as manufacturing saw significant gains in December.
"So you do have considerable job growth year over year. You have the ongoing trend of falling unemployment," department spokesman Greg Rivara said. "And if you don't have that cold snap and you don't have schools closing for the holiday, you have job growth."
But Illinois' unemployment rate remains higher than all but a few states. December figures for every state weren't yet available Friday, but in November only three states had higher unemployment that Illinois.
And economists who watch Illinois remain concerned about its prospects.
"Things have not gone well for Illinois the last six months compared to the nation or compared to several states in our neighborhood," University of Illinois economist Richard Dye said during a presentation earlier this week on the state's jobs situation.
Experts aren't convinced that the picture will improve in the short term.
A forecast of the 2014 job creation prospects for each of the 50 states released earlier this month by the Pew Charitable Trusts projected Illinois will be 50th with an expected job-market growth rate of .98 percent. That would amount to just short of 57,000 net new jobs added this year.
The No. 1 state in Pew's projections was North Dakota, at 3.57 percent. Among Illinois' neighbors, Indiana's projected rate was 1.6 percent, Iowa's at 1.39 percent, Wisconsin at 1.49 percent and Missouri at 1.33 percent.
Friday's report showed Illinois lost a net 4,500 construction jobs in December, the biggest loss of any single job category.
Other areas with declines included a loss of 2,000 educational and health services positions, 1,200 leisure and hospitality jobs, and 1,100 government workers. Most of the last group was school workers off the job for the holidays, Rivara said.
Manufacturing employers added 1,500 jobs after cutting positions in recent months with declining demand for mainstay Illinois products such as heavy mining and construction equipment.