Economy Adds 155,000 New Jobs; Rate Holds at 7.8%

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The U.S. employment picture continued its gradual improvement in December, adding 155,000 positions as the jobless rate held at 7.8 percent.

Economists had been expecting a slightly better result, but most of the major industries showed little change from their previous levels, according to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The numbers were almost exactly in line with the overall jobs picture for 2012, during which there were an average of 153,000 net new positions per month.

That's right around where economists figure job growth has to be just to maintain the unemployment rate, which came down during the year from January's 8.3 percent largely because more people gave up looking for work.

"I don't think this is a big needle mover one way or the other," said Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab. "Businesses are not having a problem from the employment perspective; they are from a confidence and (capital expenditure) perspective."

As has been the case since the financial crisis in 2008, the jobs report gets viewed through the prism of how it will affect monetary policy.

Investors got a bit of a jolt Thursday after the minutes from the most recent Federal Reserve meeting indicated to some that the central bank may cut off its stimulus policies sooner than expected. (Read More: End of Stimulus? Why It Isn't All Bad News)

"The underlying economy is not yet strong enough to support aggressive estimates by economists on job growth," said Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst at NBG Productions in New York. The "Fed is not going anywhere; reaction yesterday to FOMC minutes (was) a gross overreaction."

Indeed, the household survey showed just 28,000 more Americans working during the month, and other alternative measures remained elevated. Unemployment for blacks, which has been a volatile number all year, jumped to 14.0 percent.

Sonders concurred that investors shouldn't get too worked up over the Fed ending its government debt-buying quantitative easing program anytime soon.

The Fed has said it also will keep interest rates near zero until unemployment falls to 6.5 percent, which could take years. (Read More: End of Stimulus? What's Behind Fed's Surprise Statement)

"The ultimate bullish scenario would be if indeed the Fed does have impetus to end QE in 2013. That would clearly indicate that the economy has found significant footing to suggest that was appropriate," Sonders said. "Today's report doesn't change the mid-2015 timeframe."

Health care, which added 45,000 jobs, and services were the biggest growth areas for the month.

Restaurants and bars added 38,000 positions, while construction grew by 30,000.

The government had initially reported the November unemployment rate at 7.7 percent but said Friday that number actually was 7.8 percent, meaning there was no change in the headline number.

The initial report for November showed an increase of 146,000 jobs but was revised higher to 161,000.

Estimates for December rose following Thursday's better-than-expected report from ADP, which said private payrolls increased 215,000.

But two closely watched measures showed little change for the month.

The labor force participation rate, which measures workers and those looking for jobs, remained mired at 63.6 percent, near a 30-year low.

A separate measure that includes those who have given up looking and those working part-time for economic reasons held at 14.4 percent.

Elsewhere in the jobs data, the average work week edged higher to 34.5 hours and average hourly earnings rose 7 cents to $23.73. For the year, wages grew 2.1 percent.

—By CNBC's Jeff Cox