POST FALLS - Kootenai County's jobless rate fell for the seventh straight month in December, dropping to 7.4 percent, according to data released by the Idaho Department of Labor on Friday.
November's rate was 8.1 percent.
"The drop in unemployment from November to December was primarily attributed to the retail holiday ramp up," said Alivia Metts, Labor's regional economist. "There was a slight decline in the labor force and this is partially contributed to the holiday season factor as well. People may give up looking for work through the holiday season because they think employers in sectors other than retail aren't hiring until after the new year.
"The combination of those two factors drove the rate down ..."
Idaho's rate dropped another two-tenths of a percentage point in December to 6.6 percent - the lowest rate in nearly four years - on the strength of rising employment. It has dropped 2.3 percentage points in 17 months.
December marked 11 years and three months that the Idaho rate has been below the national rate, which held steady in December at 7.8 percent.
Benewah County's rate, meanwhile, dropped from 11.1 percent to 10.8 percent.
Metts said rates typically rise in January through March before dropping slightly in the summer months.
"I don't see any reason this pattern would change much," she said.
The state's labor force expanded in December, albeit just fractionally, for the first time since last May, according to labor department. Job opportunities were sufficient to accommodate not only 300 new entrants to the workforce, but 1,500 workers who were previously without jobs. Rate declines in recent months have been due in large part to labor force contraction, according to labor department officials.
Employers maintained hiring at or above December levels of the past five years, and the improvement was felt throughout the state. Only job levels in natural resources, administrative support services and private educational services slipped from the five-year average.
Idaho employers added more than 12,000 new hires to their payrolls during December, up 12 percent over December 2011 and the highest December hiring total since the recession began. But the hiring was almost entirely to fill vacancies that occurred through firings, retirements, deaths or other reasons rather than new jobs.
The Conference Board, a Washington, D.C., business think tank, estimates there are still slightly more than two workers for every job posted in Idaho, but that is down dramatically from nearly five for every posting during the worst of the recession in late 2009.
And while December posted a labor force increase, it was the smallest November-December increase in the last 36 years. There were three Decembers where the labor force actually declined from November - during the current recession in 2008 and in the mid-1980s recession.
Idaho's December labor force also had 500 fewer workers than the previous December. The recent recession is the only other time that a year-over-year decline occurred in December in the last three decades.
Five rural counties - all in North and north-central Idaho - posted double-digit jobless rates in December.
Twenty-one of Idaho's 44 counties reported jobless rates below 6 percent, up from 14 in November and just five a year ago.