Hiring picture appears brighter at end of year

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The job market outlook looked rosier in November and into early December.

Far fewer people are seeking unemployment benefits than just three months ago -- a sign that layoffs are falling sharply.

The number of people applying for benefits fell in early December to 366,000, the fewest since May 2008, according to The Associated Press. If the number stayed that low, it would likely signal that hiring is strong enough to lower unemployment.

In Washington state, private-sector job growth has pushed the unemployment rate to the lowest point since February 2009.

The November jobless rate of 8.7 percent was down from 9.1 percent in October, according to the state Employment Security Department.

Walla Walla County reported a 6.2 percent jobless rate in November, down from 6.6 percent a year ago.

Columbia County's unemployment rate in November was 10.1 percent while Garfield County reported at 6.5 percent rate.

The state added some 12,100 jobs -- more than any month since the official start of the recession at the end of 2007, the AP reported.

The state has been adding jobs regularly over the past year, but it has usually come in smaller chunks. It is too early to say whether the growth was the start of a trend.

Nationally, the unemployment rate is now 8.6 percent. The last time applications were this low, the rate was 5.4 percent.

The big question is whether fewer layoffs will translate into robust hiring. It hasn't yet, even though job growth has been rising consistently each month.

The four-week average of weekly unemployment applications, which smooths out fluctuations, dropped in early December to 387,750. That's the lowest four-week since July 2008. The four-week average had declined in 10 of the previous 12 weeks.

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