By PHILLIP RAWLSMONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) â¿¿ Alabama's unemployment rate dropped for the fourth month to 7.1 percent in December, well below the national unemployment rate of 7.8 percent. Gov. Robert Bentley announced Friday that December's rate was down from 7.5 percent in November, continuing a decline from 8.5 percent in August. It declined to 8.2 percent in September and 8.1 percent in October. Alabama's December rate was down from 8.0 percent measured a year ago. The Department of Labor reported that Alabama gained 7,600 manufacturing jobs during the last year, 4,500 professional and business services jobs, and 3,400 leisure and hospitality jobs. The state lost 5,400 government jobs and 2,100 construction jobs during the year. December's unemployment rate represented 152,638 people looking for work. That was down from 162,169 in November and 174,443 a year ago. "Over the past 12 months, we've seen the total number of unemployed persons drop by nearly 22,000. Still, we must remember that many people are looking for work," Bentley said. While more people are working in Alabama than a year ago, part of the state's decline in unemployment is the result of the work force getting smaller due to people retiring, moving or giving up on looking for work. The Department of Labor reported that Alabama's work force measured 2.16 million in December, which was about 14,600 smaller than a year earlier. Over the same period, the number of people employed in Alabama increased by 7,200. The Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama is forecasting the job growth will continue this year. It is estimating that Alabama will add 18,500 jobs in 2013, which would represent a 1 percent increase in employment. At a conference Wednesday in Montgomery, center Director Sam Addy said that picture could improve if Washington leaders provide a clear picture of the country's fiscal future. He said businesses need that clarity to feel comfortable about investing money.