Massachusetts just enjoyed the best annual run in job growth since the end of the dot-com boom 15 years ago, but economists say it's unlikely to continue this year.
The state added an estimated 7,100 jobs in December, pushing employment growth for all of 2015 to nearly 74,000 jobs, the most since 2000, the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported Thursday. Massachusetts employers, however, will be hard-pressed this year to match that figure in the face of a global economic slowdown, financial market turmoil, and an aging workforce that will make it challenging to find skilled employees to fill positions as baby boomer retirements accelerate, economists said.
"It was a great year," said Alan Clayton-Matthews a Northeastern University economics professor. "It won't be expanding at the same rapid pace."
Economic recoveries tend to wane after several years of strong growth, and that is likely to happen this year in Massachusetts, Clayton-Matthews said. But the collapse in oil prices, weak economic growth in China, and the uncertainty these developments have created could also weigh on job growth as companies become skittish about expanding too quickly.
In addition, banks at risk of losses from loans in the oil and energy sector — oil prices remain below $30 a barrel — may tighten their lending in other areas, Clayton-Matthews said. Several of the country's largest banks, including Bank of America Corp., the biggest bank doing business in Massachusetts, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have said in recent days that they are setting aside more money to cover potential losses from their lending to energy companies.
Still, the state's economic base of health care and technology companies should help it weather most of the headwinds, economists said.
Clayton-Matthews lowered his projections for employment growth in Massachusetts for 2016, but he still expects a solid 1.5 percent increase, or more than 50,000 jobs.
Earlier, he forecast employment growth of about 1.8 percent, or more than 60,000 jobs.
Employment grew by 2.1 percent in 2015.
The state recovered faster than the nation as a whole from the most recent recession, which lasted from 2007 to 2009, buoyed by the big-name colleges and universities in the region and the growing technology and health care sectors. Massachusetts has added more than 325,000 jobs since the recession ended.
The state unemployment rate held steady at 4.7 percent in December, just above the prerecession low of 4.6 percent but below the US average of 5 percent. Over the year, unemployment fell more than a half percentage point from 5.3 percent at the end of 2014.
Massachusetts gained jobs in 11 of the 12 months of 2015, ending with the best employment growth since when the state gained more than 95,000 jobs. Construction, professional and scientific services, and health and education services led the job gains last year.
Greater Boston's building boom helped the construction sector stage a strong rebound after sustaining some of the largest job losses during the recession. Construction employment grew by 9,500 jobs last year, or 7.4 percent, more than triple the rate of growth for all employment in Massachusetts.
"It's hard to look at the jobs report and not be encouraged," said Michael Goodman, executive director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
However, a shrinking labor pool could become an increasing problem as workers from the baby boom generation age and retire, Goodman said. The state's labor force participation rate declined by 1.1 percentage point from December 2014, according to the state.
"One of the big concerns is labor," Goodman said. "We are the leading edge of the retirement of the baby boom generation."