This past spring, Leigh Elder was at a crossroads.
At 56, he had been laid off from his job as a tool and die maker, so he enrolled in a truck-driving course with a friend.
But by the time the course ended, Elder had a job waiting for him back in manufacturing. A factory offered him work as a tool and die maker for at least a year.
"They're offering me more money than I made at my last job and an extra week's vacation," Elder said in April. "I hope I'm making the right decision."
Now, he says his decision to stay with manufacturing has been the right one.
"Nobody knows for sure if you're going to have a job somewhere down the line. But everything seems to be going okay, I guess."]
Manufacturing, which had been hammered in the recession, added nearly 13,000 jobs so far this year-- almost as many as education and health services.
Experts say manufacturing has been a surprising bright spot in the state's job market. State labor market analyst Steve Hine said its strength has helped to boost Minnesota's overall job numbers above the national average.
"We've seen over 44,000 additional jobs over the past year. We're growing November 2009 to November 2010 at 1.7 percent. That's the third fastest rate in the country," he said
Hine notes that Minnesota has only recovered about a third of the jobs it lost in the recession, but the pace of improvement this past year was better than he expected.
It was better than what Laina Bretzke expected, too. Six months ago, she was finishing a degree in biomedical engineering, which economists project will be the fastest growing field this coming decade. But like many of her classmates, Bretzke didn't have a job lined up in May -- only a paid internship. She was feeling anxious.
"For right now, we're holding our breath," she said in May.
A lot has changed since then. Bretzke, who's 22, now has a job that pays in the $50,000 range -- nearly twice as much as her internship. And she's been spending. She's got a more expensive place to live. She's driving around in a new car that cost about $25,000, and she bought a puppy.
Bretzke says the job market in her field seems to be loosening up. Her friends and colleagues have greater mobility.
"You did have to take the first thing that was give to you in the beginning, whereas now you can pick and choose a little more," she said.
And though she worried about her career path six months ago, Bretzke now feels confident it will advance as planned.
"I feel more optimistic now, definitely!" she said.
Even hard-hit sectors like construction appear to be improving. Economists agree that construction employment likely hit bottom in 2010, but plenty of workers are still suffering. Mahdee Abdullah, a 46-year-old cement layer, hasn't had a steady job in two years.
Six months ago, he was still drawing unemployment benefits and trying to stay upbeat. But now that money's gone, and he's hit hard times.
"I'm not able to pay child support, it's tough to keep a phone on, you know your phone gets cut off," he said. "I don't have insurance."
And without money to pay rent, he had to leave his apartment and is now couch-surfing.
Abdullah does odd jobs for friends, working a few hours at a time. He said it's not enough to live on. But because he has some work, and some income, Abdullah wouldn't be counted as unemployed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It's a testament to how much pain is lurking behind the job numbers, even when they seem to improve.