CHAMPAIGN, Illinois — Illinois' unemployment rate fell in December to the lowest it's been in almost seven years, 6.2 percent, the Illinois Department of Employment Security said Friday.
That was down from 6.4 percent in November and is the ninth monthly decrease in the past 10 months as the state continues to bounce back from recession. The improvement was driven by strong job growth in construction, leisure and hospitality and the educational and health services sector.
The monthly state unemployment report was the first under new Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. His newly appointed department director, Jeff Mays, didn't exactly celebrate the news.
Referring to the net 17,100 new jobs added in December, Mays pointed out in a news release that the 0.9 percent gain since December 2013 "was significantly less than the national increase of 2.1 percent, indicating that Illinois employment growth remains lower than the national average."
U.S. unemployment was at 5.6 percent in December.
Another report Friday underscored at least one weak spot in the state's recovery from recession. The Illinois Department of Human Service said 1.07 million Illinois households were enrolled last month in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, up 20,000 from the previous month and the highest since at least 2010.
Rauner campaigned against now-former Gov. Pat Quinn in part on what he saw as the continued underperformance of Illinois' economy.
Nonetheless, the last time Illinois' jobless rate was as low as 6.2 percent was May 2008, when it stood at 5.9 percent. As the recession worsened in the following months, it started to rise and was above 9 percent as recently as mid-2013.
In its report Friday, the department said Illinois construction firms added a net 6,000 jobs in December. Educational and health services employers added 4,700 jobs. Leisure and hospitality companies added 4,500.
Department spokeswoman Evelina Loescher said the food side of the hospitality industry in particular had a strong December, and educational services employers — including private schools and other for-profit education businesses — had a run of several strong months.
As for construction, "We've had some improvement in housing the past couple of months, but weather really drives gains in the winter," Loescher said. At the mid-December point when employers were surveyed, temperatures had been relatively mild.
The number of unemployed workers in Illinois who are actively seeking employment was at 405,700, down 3.6 percent from November.