In Orlando, Florida, Brenda Solomon lost her retail job last May at a department store and was unable to find even temporary work during the holiday season. "I've tried and tried and tried," Solomon, 58, said on Friday while visiting a job center.
Earlier, the U.S. Labor department said employers added 200,000 jobs during December, many more than expected by Wall Street. In 2011 as a whole, 1.64 million jobs were created, well above the 940,000 in 2010 and the best showing since 2006.
But the amount of jobs in the economy is still about 6.1 million lower than before the brutal 2007-2009 recession. At December's pace of gains, it would take about 2 1/2 years just to get back to pre-recession levels of employment. That means many people will be in for an agonizing wait.
In December, 5.6 million of the nation's unemployed had been out of work for at least six months, the Labor Department data showed, only slightly lower than the previous month.
Laquanda Carmichael has been without work for just over a year and has seen no improvement in the labor market. "It's been the same to me. I have a lot of discouraging days," the 39 year-old former science teacher and hospital worker said. "I'm looking for anything right now. Warehouse processing, hospitality, anything."
While jobs creation certainly picked up in the United States during the end of the year, economists point out that even a gain of 200,000 underwhelms considering constant growth in the population and the still-high 8.5 percent unemployment rate. Princeton University economist Paul Krugman said that at December's pace it could take a decade for the labor market to recover from the recession.
In a back-of-the-envelope calculation, Krugman was considering that the country's growing population adds at least 100,000 people to the workforce every month. "We need much faster job growth," he wrote on his blog. "It says something about how beaten down we are that this (jobs report for December) is considered good news."
The unemployment numbers reflect a persistent difference between those with a higher education and those without - especially in certain sectors like engineering. Nearly 90 percent of 2011 graduates from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts got jobs or attended graduate school - almost the same level as before 2008.
Jeanette Doyle, director of the school's Career Development Center, said there was a 7 percent uptick in late 2011 in the number of companies at the school's fall recruiting event, and 17 companies were on a wait list to get in.
For lower-paid Americans, the picture is very different.
Construction worker Richard White, also at the job center in Orlando, has not had steady work in the last three years, and gets by on occasional stints doing electrical work or carpentry.
In December, the construction industry added 17,000 jobs. But that sector, devastated by a burst housing bubble that helped trigger the last recession, has even farther to go than the rest of the economy before it can recover. There were still almost a third fewer construction jobs in December than at the industry's pre-recession peak in August 2006.
As for the December's advance, White said: "I'm not seeing it."
(Additional reporting by Jilian Mincer in New York; writing by Jason Lange in Washington; Editing by Diane Craft)