WASHINGTON — For many people whose job prospects faded most during the recession, 2011 brought a small dose of relief.
When unemployment was surging, the youngest U.S. workers, the oldest, those without college degrees and men as a whole all suffered disproportionately. Last year, those groups — whose unemployment rates still exceed the national average — had better success than others in finding jobs, according to Labor Department data released Friday.
Many found low-paying jobs in technology firms and as health care technicians, machinists, autoworkers, hotel and store clerks and waiters.
A big exception was African Americans, who were especially hard hit by the recession. Their unemployment rate didn't budge in 2011.
All told, about 13.1 million Americans remain unemployed. About 2.5 million have quit looking for work altogether.
The proportion of American adults who have jobs has risen slightly over the past year, to 58.5 percent. But that's down from 59.4 percent in June 2009, when the recession officially ended, and from 63.4 percent five years ago.
— EDUCATION: Unemployment among workers with less than a high school diploma fell from 15.1 percent to 13.8 percent. By comparison, unemployment for those with a bachelor's degree declined by a smaller margin, from 4.8 percent to 4.1 percent.
"The less-educated tend to suffer more in downturns and recover more rapidly when employment picks up," said Lawrence Katz, a Harvard labor and economics professor.
Katz cautioned that the less-educated will face difficulty in coming years as many industries demand harder-to-find technical skills from job applicants.
— SEX: The unemployment rate for men fell more than twice as fast as for women in 2011. Hiring was strong among male-dominated industries like manufacturing. And more men entered some fields long dominated by women, including health care and retail.
The unemployment rate for men sank from 10 percent to 8.7 percent. But women remain better off. Their rate fell from 8.6 percent to 8.3 percent.
"You're seeing a shift," Katz said. "A lot of men are dropping out of the workforce, but those that are staying are seeking more schooling, more technical certifications, and are entering fields they wouldn't normally go into."
— AGE: In 2011, employment prospects were best for workers ages 20 to 24 and those 65 and up. Some young men are being hired for entry-level positions at lower pay than in years past. And some retirees returned to the workforce last year after their retirement portfolios took a beating over the past four years.
Unemployment is dropping faster for those ages 35 to 64. But part of the reason is that a disproportionate share of people in this age group have given up looking for jobs. Once people stop looking for work, they're no longer counted as unemployed.
Young adults and retirees fared slightly better than the middle-aged in 2011. Some gained lower-paying jobs in retail, manufacturing and technology firms.
The percentage of workers ages 20 to 24 and those over 65 who are employed rose at a faster pace than other age groups in 2011, according to the Labor Department data.
— RACE: Unemployment fell most among Hispanics. Their rate declined from 12.9 percent to 11 percent. In part, that's because a larger-than-average share of Hispanics have stopped looking for work.
Immigration has also slowed. That means there are fewer foreign-born job-seekers in the United States.
Since the recession ended more than two years ago, the employment gap between blacks and whites has widened. The rate for African-Americans was unchanged last year at 15.8 percent. By comparison, white unemployment fell from 8.5 percent to 7.5 percent.
Unemployment among whites 25 and over with a bachelor's degree is just 3.9 percent. For similarly educated African-Americans, the rate is more than double: 8 percent. In previous years, that gap had been roughly 1 percentage point.
One reason for the much wider disparity is that college-educated African-Americans are disproportionately represented in state and local government jobs, said Algernon Austin, director of the Economic Policy Institute's Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy.
As those governments have increasingly slashed their payrolls to close budget gaps, many black workers have lost jobs.
"The gap is becoming more noticeable after recessions end, and African-American workers are facing increasingly long odds at finding a job," Austin said.
Among the four identified racial groups, Asians have the lowest unemployment rate. It fell from 7.2 percent to 6.8 percent last year.