WASHINGTON — The U.S. job market can’t be derailed even by a hurricane.
Employers added 146,000 jobs in November, and the unemployment rate dipped to 7.7 percent, a four-year low, the government said Friday.
Though modest, the job growth was encouraging because it defied disruptions from Hurricane Sandy and employers’ concerns about impending tax increases from the year-end “fiscal cliff.”
In South Jersey, the improving employment trend was only shared by Cape May County in seasonally adjusted jobless rates for October, released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
Cape May County’s unemployment rate fell to 13.1 percent from 13.8 percent in September, while the rate edged up in Atlantic County to 13.4 percent from 13.1 percent and in Cumberland County to 14.1 percent from 14.0 percent. The three counties have the highest jobless rates in the state and in the Fed’s Third District.
They are also among the highest rates in the nation — with Cumberland 10th worst among the 372 largest metro areas, Atlantic 11th worst, and Cape May County 14th worst, Labor Department data show.
Ocean County also saw its unemployment rate rise slightly, to 10.5 percent from 10.3 percent in September.
Analysts said the national job market’s underlying strength suggests that if the White House and Congress can reach a budget deal to avoid the cliff, hiring and economic growth could accelerate next year.
A budget agreement would coincide with gains in key sectors of the economy.
Builders are breaking ground on more homes, which should increase construction hiring. U.S. automakers just enjoyed their best sales month in nearly five years. And a resolution of the fiscal cliff could lead businesses to buy more industrial machinery and other heavy equipment. That would generate more manufacturing jobs.
“The ground is being prepared for faster growth,” said Nigel Gault, an economist at IHS Global Insight.
Hurricane Sandy, contrary to expectations, dampened job growth only minimally in November, the government said. Job gains were roughly the same as this year’s 150,000 monthly average, and the unemployment rate fell two-tenths of a percentage point to its lowest level since December 2008.
That suggests that fears about the cliff haven’t led employers to cut staff, though they aren’t hiring aggressively, either. The economy must produce roughly twice November’s jobs gain to quickly lower the unemployment rate.
Friday’s report included some discouraging signs. Employers added 49,000 fewer jobs in October and September combined than the government had initially estimated. Monthly job totals come from a survey of 140,000 companies and government agencies, which together employ about 1 in 3 nonfarm workers in the United States.
The unemployment rate, derived from a separate survey of households, fell even though 122,000 fewer people said they were employed in November. That’s because the number of people working or looking for work fell by much more — 350,000.
The household survey asks about 60,000 households whether the adults have jobs and whether those who don’t are looking for one. Those without a job who are seeking one are counted as unemployed. Those who aren’t looking aren’t counted as unemployed.
All told, 12 million people were unemployed in November, about 230,000 fewer than the previous month. That’s still many more than the 7.6 million who were out of work when the recession officially began in December 2007.
For now, worries about the cliff have led some companies to cut back on purchases of heavy equipment. Consumers are also signaling concern. A survey of consumer sentiment fell sharply in December, economists noted, partly over worries that taxes could rise next year.
But a resolution of the cliff could accelerate job growth in the construction and manufacturing industries. Those sectors, on average, pay more than the retail and restaurant jobs that have helped drive hiring in recent months and tend to contribute more to economic growth.
Construction workers earned an average of $26 an hour in November. Factory workers averaged $24 an hour. Both far exceed the hourly average of $16.40 for retail employees and about $13.40 for hotel, restaurant and other hospitality workers.
“The good news is not that the labor market is improving rapidly — it isn’t — but that employment growth is holding up despite all the fears over the fiscal cliff,” Gault said.
He estimated that a budget deal would boost the economy’s average monthly job gains to about 200,000 next year.
There were signs that the storm disrupted economic activity in November. Construction employment dropped by 20,000. And weather prevented 369,000 people from getting to work — the most for any month in nearly two years. These workers were still counted as employed.
Retailers added 53,000 positions last month, a sharp gain that likely reflected holiday hiring. Auto manufacturers added nearly 10,000 jobs. But overall manufacturing jobs fell by 7,000, partly a result of 12,000 jobs lost in food manufacturing that likely reflected layoffs at Hostess Brands Inc.
The number of Americans who were working part time in November but wanted full-time work declined. And a measure of discouraged workers — those who wanted a job but hadn’t searched for one in the past month — rose slightly.
Those two groups, plus the 12 million unemployed, make up a broader measure known as “underemployment.” The underemployment rate fell to 14.4 percent in November from 14.6 percent in October.
Business editor Kevin Post contributed to this report.