State economy adds 10,000 jobs, double the number expected.

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Washington’s jobless rate plunged to its lowest level in four years last month, a sign the state’s economic recovery is in full swing.

Unemployment dropped to 5.5 percent in January, a sharp decline from December’s 5.9 percent. Employers added 10,000 jobs, double what forecasters had projected. The growth included 3,700 new jobs in the Seattle metro area.

Nearly three years ago, Washington had one of the worst jobless rates in the nation: 7.7 percent in April 2002.

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This January, the state’s jobless rate fell below California (5.8 percent unemployment) and Oregon (6.4 percent).

The national jobless rate dropped to 5.2 percent in January, helped by 146,000 new U.S. jobs.

Statewide, the services industry — a broad sector that includes retail, professional services and health care — added the most jobs in January, a combined 7,000.

Manufacturing, hardest hit by the recession, showed some growth for the month. Food processing gained 1,100 jobs, followed by wood products, which added 400 jobs.

Boeing hiring boosted the number of aerospace jobs by 300 in January. Fabricated metals and boat-building industries each saw 200 more jobs for the month.

Manufacturing still needs to add 61,000 jobs, however, to reach pre-recession levels.

Even with seasonal adjustments, job growth in the construction industry remained flat in January. This followed several months of vigorous job growth in commercial and residential construction.

County and metropolitan unemployment figures were unavailable yesterday because of a delay in data collection.

Despite the encouraging state numbers, the recovery still has some dark spots.

Public-sector jobs grew by 40,000 over the past four years, but jobs in the private sector — the economy’s engine — are down 43,000 from January 2001, according to Roberta Pauer, a regional economist with the state Employment Security Department.

“Consumers generally get their earnings from private-sector business employment, so it all comes back to the wages,” Pauer said. “The health of your economy comes from the health of private business.”

Revised employment figures for 2004 show that Washington’s job growth was less robust than economists first thought.

In the last half of the year, the state added 15,000 fewer jobs than estimated, leaving Washington 3,000 jobs short of prerecession levels.

Heidi Miller, personnel coordinator for Bellevue-based Molly Brown Temps, said she’s seeing an increase in hiring in the Seattle area for both temporary and full-time permanent jobs.

She’s also witnessed growing boldness among job seekers, some of whom are quitting stable positions to look elsewhere.

“It’s not like the job-hopping was eight years ago, but there’s a little more confidence in the market,” she said.

Miller is monitoring what she jokingly calls “the reception factor,” an unscientific but reliable gauge of employee optimism. She has noticed that the better the job market, the more low-paying receptionist jobs go unfilled.

“A year and a half ago, when I would run an ad for a receptionist, I would get executive admins [top-level secretaries] applying because they wanted to get their foot in the door,” she said.

“It’s nice to see people get confidence back.”

Executive recruiters are confident that hiring will pick up for senior positions as well in 2005. A survey by ExecuNet, a Connecticut-based recruiting firm, found that more than half the businesses polled planned to add staff over the next six months to meet client demand.

Bill Manganaro, 53, a former energy-industry executive who lives on Bainbridge Island, hopes that optimism is well placed.

He has been looking for a senior management position since August, when he moved to Washington from Illinois.

Despite networking and even placing an ad in the newspaper with his photo, Manganaro has hit the same wall as many older workers seeking to jump industries: Employers insist on industry knowledge along with executive experience.

Still, Manganaro doesn’t feel the desperation many out-of-work professionals experienced during the darkest days of the recession, when they were taking minimum-wage jobs just to get working again.

He’s holding out for the right job with the right company.

“I’m being selective,” he said, “looking for the right match of my talents and the company’s needs.”

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or sholt@seattletimes.com