The leisure and hospitality sector led hiring in December as restaurant and bar managers added wait staff, cooks and bartenders to payrolls ahead of the holidays.
That sector saw net job growth of 53,000 workers, with eateries accounting for 42,600 of that gain and hotels, motels and other accommodation businesses adding 10,000. Amusement parks, casinos and other recreational firms shed 6,600 workers in December.
For the year, leisure and hospitality added 2.6 million jobs, but employment itself was off 1.2 million jobs, or 7.2%, since February 2020. Employment in food services is still down by 653,000 since February 2020.
The broad professional and business services sector also proved another bright spot in December as computer programmers, management consultants and building service workers (including janitors, landscapers and chimney sweeps) all saw decent gains. The sector added 43,000 net positions.
The hiring in the hospitality and professional services sectors helped the broader U.S. economy add 199,000 jobs in December, according to the Labor Department data. The unemployment rate fell under 4% for the first time since February 2020 and wages rose 4.7% compared with December 2020.
Still, many economists were perplexed by the headline jobs number given expectations for a gain north of 400,000 jobs.
“Overall, this print had mixed messaging – the payrolls growth number may look disappointing, but the underlying story is lack of availability of labor, which is manifesting itself in faster wage growth,” Anu Gaggar, global investment strategist for Commonwealth Financial Network, said in an email.
Manufacturing and construction both saw decent hiring.
Manufacturers, which added 26,000 jobs overall, added 7,700 machinery workers, 4,200 motor vehicle workers and 1,600 furniture employees. The Labor Department noted that about 8,000 of the net gains in machinery reflected the return of workers from a strike.
Construction added 22,000 as companies staffed up on heavy and civil engineers (10,400) and specialty trade contractors (12,900). Construction employment is off 88,000 jobs from its February 2020 level.
December was a lackluster month for retail as consumer-facing shops actually lost a modest 2,100 jobs in the middle of the all-important shopping season. The Labor Department said sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores lost 12,500 net positions in December but that warehouse clubs and supercenters tacked on 15,000.
Government payrolls also saw net losses in the final month of 2021 as state and local governments shed 5,100 and 7,800 workers, respectively. Overall public-sector employment dropped 12,000.
— CNBC’s Nate Rattner contributed reporting.
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