After a slow and often agonizing recovery, Washington may have finally regained the jobs lost during the recession. Employers added 2,900 jobs in December, pushing the number of...

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After a slow and often agonizing recovery, Washington may have finally regained the jobs lost during the recession.

Employers added 2,900 jobs in December, pushing the number of newly created jobs in 2004 to 60,000, according to preliminary figures from the state Employment Security Department.

The state has added 82,000 jobs since the recession ended in June 2003 — 800 more than the 81,200 lost during the recession.

This was the strongest 12-month job growth since June 2000, six months before the recession hit in December of that year.

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“That’s a very encouraging sign,” said Chang Mook Sohn, director of the state’s Office of Forecast Council. “We declined faster than the U.S., but we are coming back faster than the U.S. as well.”

Washington’s economy grew between 2.2 and 2.4 percent over the year, depending on how the figures are calculated. By contrast, the U.S. economy grew 1.7 percent.

The hardest-hit Seattle area continues to struggle, however. The metropolitan area, which includes Everett and Bellevue, has regained only 29,500 of the 98,200 jobs it lost. Economists don’t expect a full recovery in this area until late 2006.

Despite the encouraging numbers in the rest of the state, Washington’s job growth still wasn’t large enough to absorb the number of people looking for work. Unemployment rose again in December, to 5.8 percent from 5.7 percent in November and 5.6 percent in October.

One explanation is so-called “discouraged” workers have resumed their active job search and are once again counted in unemployment figures. About 5,500 more people sought work in December than in the previous month, according to the state.

The national jobless rate remained unchanged in December at 5.4 percent.

Construction accounted for much of the job growth over the last several months. The industry created 13,000 nonseasonal jobs during the recovery, nearly twice the 7,500 it lost during the recession that lasted from January 2001 to June 2003.

Services, which includes retail and banking, gained 65,000 jobs, far more than the 44,800 it lost in the downturn.

Manufacturing is showing some signs of life, although the sector remains down by 65,600 jobs. Boeing is hiring about 3,000 locally, mostly in engineering for the new 7E7 and for some defense work.

Buoyed by the growth in construction, Milgard Windows has been hiring for its production plant in Tacoma. The manufacturer has openings for at least 50 production workers and 10 managers, said manager Brenda Frost.

“We typically see a real slack between November and February in the Pacific Northwest,” Frost said. So far this winter, however, “we are not seeing as much as a slump as we are in years past,” she said.

Manufacturing is expected to turn around this year, growing at a modest 0.5 percent growth. Forecasters predict future job growth at 2.3 percent and 2.5 percent in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

Many of those jobs will be in machinery, equipment, food processing and aerospace industries, according to the Office of Forecast Council.

The state lost an estimated 100,000 manufacturing jobs since 1998, many of them caused by massive job cuts at Boeing. The aerospace giant has begun hiring again as it designs the new 7E7.

Unlike many jobs that don’t drive the economy, such as those in the retail industry, manufacturing jobs carry a multiplier effect. That is, for every production job created, another 1.7 jobs appear elsewhere.

Forecasters expect employers will add about 5,000 jobs a month this year, although the unemployment rate is expected to hold steady as the jobless resume their search for work.

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