SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah gained more than 15,000 jobs in the past year, but its unemployment rate grew slightly as more people began searching for jobs, according to figures released Thursday.
The Utah Department of Workforce Services said the state's unemployment rate in December was 7.5 percent, up from 6.6 percent a year earlier.
The national unemployment rate was 9.4 percent.
More than 101,000 Utah residents were considered unemployed in December, up from nearly 89,000 in December 2009.
However, Mark Knold, chief economist for the department, said the more telling number is that Utah's job count expanded by 1.3 percent to about 1.2 million in the same period.
"The good news is that the economy seems to be, I think it's on the cusp, of starting to regrow," Knold said in a department podcast. "I think it's on the cusp of starting to feel like its healing a whole lot more and that the job growth is going to start pick up the pace a little bit."
Knold is forecasting that employment growth will be 2 percent at the end of 2011.
Utah's job growth in the past year occurred entirely in the private sector. With increased consumer confidence and consumer spending, Knold said, employment levels should continue to grow throughout 2011. However, he warned the unemployment rate could still rise after holding steady from November to December.
"You actually will probably see the unemployment rate possibly go up because those discouraged workers will be coming back in the labor force looking for jobs, not because we're getting more deterioration within the economy," Knold said.
In the past year, education and health services experienced the most growth, at 3.8 percent. Professional and business services also grew about 3.2 percent.
Growth in the construction industry, which fueled job growth in the state for years, was largely stagnant at 0.5 percent.
"Once you get the economics of the housing market back in place and the financial side heals itself and cleansing its bad balance sheets and so on, then you're ready to start rebuilding the housing market," Knold said.
He said it would probably be several years before the consequences of the Great Recession's financial meltdown are complete and construction enters pre-recession levels.