Basu and Simonson noted that, as of last month, total construction employment was up by 46,000 compared with December 2010's level. Simonson said the industry's 5.5-million employment figure is 0.8% above the year-earlier total, but it is down more than 39% from its 7.7-million peak, reached in April 2006.

On the positive side, December was the 15th-straight month in which construction’s jobless rate was lower than its year-earlier level. On the other hand, construction had the highest unemployment rate among major industries. Agriculture ranked second highest, at 14.3% for December.

The overall U.S. unemployment rate edged downward last month, to 8.5% from November’s mark, which BLS said has been revised to 8.7%. November's mark was originally reported as 8.6%. Those overall rates are seasonally adjusted.