TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- New Jersey gained 66,400 jobs in 2012, the biggest jump since 2000, new data show. But the state remains years away from returning to its pre-recession job level at the current rate of growth, and the unemployment rate for January remained flat at 9.5 percent.
Revised federal data show the private sector added 59,100 jobs last year and the public sector 7,300, mostly in municipal and county government, the state Labor Department reported Monday, citing revised federal data.
It was the third straight year of private sector job gains.
But at the 2012 rate of growth of less than 2 percent, it would take more than two more years to return employment in New Jersey to its pre-recession height.
A burst of hiring in December — the final adjusted gain was revised downward to 24,500 — had raised hope that the pace of growth was accelerating.
But preliminary figures show a net gain of only 2,600 jobs in January, raising total employment to 3,934,000.
The state Treasury's chief economist, Charles Steindel, said a revision upward in the numbers for 2012 "provide further confirmation that New Jersey's labor market has been strengthening."
"What we saw as firm job growth is now shown to have been even higher," he said.
The Christie administration has focused on hiring in the private sector as evidence of an improved economy, with the latest numbers showing more than 117,000 private sector jobs added since February 2010, the low point during the recession.
State Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie's likely Democratic foe in the fall election, has focused instead on the jobless rate.
"For three-and-half years, Governor Christie has had the opportunity to create a jobs program to stimulate growth. While the United States has seen its unemployment rate steadily decline, New Jersey's remains nearly 2 percent higher than the national average and more than a point higher than Connecticut and New York," she said Monday.
Only those who are actively searching for work are considered among the unemployed. The Christie administration says New Jersey's jobless rate is skewed by the continuing growth in the percentage of working-age people with jobs or looking for work, which is several points higher than the national rate.
Even with the job gains over the past year, the unemployment rate for January, estimated at 9.5 percent, remained higher than for the same month a year ago, when it was 9.2 percent, according to final revisions.
The national unemployment rate in January was 7.9 percent. It dipped to 7.7 percent in February.
New Jersey's unemployment figures for February will be released the end of this month.