WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP) -- Within the vast pool of 15.4 million unemployed workers, a split is emerging: The number of long-term jobless -- those out of work six months or longer -- is growing, while the number of short-term unemployed is declining.

The trend highlights a considerable challenge for the economy and policymakers: finding a way for the millions of Americans laid off last fall and early this year to get back to work.

The data, buried in the Dec. 4 unemployment report, are stark: The number of Americans out of work for 27 weeks or more reached 5.9 million last month, the most on records dating from 1948. That's 18 percent more than just three months ago, when the total was just below 5 million.

The tally of those out of work for 14 weeks or less, however, has dropped to 6.3 million from 7.1 million in August, a decline of about 11 percent.

Looking at it another way, the long-term jobless now make up 38.3 percent of the unemployed population, not that far from the 41.1 percent accounted for by those out of work for 14 weeks or less.

(The rest are in the 15-to-26 weeks bracket.)

That's a sharp change from August, when the short-term unemployed made up nearly half the total, while the longer-term jobless were only a third.

In some ways, the dichotomy is good news, in that it reflects a slowdown in layoffs. The Labor Department said employers cut a net total of 11,000 jobs in November, down from 111,000 the previous month. The unemployment rate dropped to 10 percent from 10.2 percent in October, the first decline since July.

That gives analysts hope the economy could begin generating jobs in the next few months, after shedding 7.2 million in the past two years.

Still, "new hiring may not be picking up all that much," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. "So what you're seeing is less people thrown into unemployment."

And without more jobs, the long-term unemployment problem is likely to linger. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has expressed concern that people caught in long spells of unemployment could see their skills atrophy.

"It really is the most difficult challenge facing us," he said in testimony to a Senate panel last week.

By the numbers

11,000: The net total of jobs lost in November

111,000: Jobs lost in October

139,000: Jobs lost in September

691,000: Average monthly loss in first three months of this year

7.2 million: Total decline in U.S. payrolls since recession began in December 2007

10 percent: November's unemployment rate, in double digits for only the second time in 26 years

10.2 percent: October's jobless rate, the highest since April 1983

9.2 million: Number of part-time workers who would have preferred full-time work last month

2.3 million: People without jobs who want to work but have stopped looking

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