ByJohn S. McClenahen Economists differ on whether or not the economic plan President Bush proposed will actually create a promised 2.1 million jobs during the next three years. But what is certain is that the U.S. economy lost more than 100,000 jobs in December 2002, a sharp contrast to the 25,000 jobs that economists generally believed would be created during last year's final month. A significant factor: big job losses in manufacturing. U.S. factories shed 65,000 jobs in December, some 8,000 more than the 57,000 manufacturing jobs lost in November, reveal data from the U.S. department of Labor. "This is the 35th consecutive monthly decline in manufacturing payrolls, which are their lowest level since 1961," notes David Rosenberg, chief North American economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York. "Job losses in . . . industry deepened in recent months, following more moderate declines in the spring and early summer" of 2002, relates Kathleen P. Utgoff, commissioner of the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. "The bulk of the employment reductions have been in durable goods production, notably in electrical equipment, fabricated metals, industrial machinery and transportation equipment," she explains. However, in December there were sizable job losses in rubber, plastics, and printing and publishing -- all non-durable goods industries. "Companies clearly remain reluctant to hire, and the economy has not escaped its soft patch," says Maury Harris, chief U.S. economist at UBS Warburg LLC, New York. Despite the loss of 101,000 jobs in the U.S. in December, the unemployment rate, which is calculated from a different database, remained unchanged from November at 6%. As recently as October 2002 the U.S. unemployment rate was 5.7%. If the U.S. manufacturing is in fact expanding again -- and this week's report on business activity from the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI will be a significant indicator -- then it appears that companies are doing more with fewer people. Indeed, there was some confirmation of this in December. The manufacturing workweek increased by three-tenths of an hour to 40.9 hours in December, and factory overtime rose by two-tenths of an hour to 4.2 hours. Meanwhile, "those who criticize President Bush's economic growth plan just don't understand that we need additional incentives for investment and job creation," asserts Jerry J. Jasinowski, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Manufacturers. The "erosion of our manufacturing work force is a real and present threat to our nation's economic leadership and national security. President Bush recognizes this and has designed an economic growth proposal that will boost capital investment and create jobs," says Jasinowski. "If people want to propose serious changes in the plan, that's fine, but the President's proposal deserves prompt consideration by Congress." For all of 2002, U.S. manufacturing employment fell 592,000, a very big number but only about half the 1.3 million factory jobs that disappeared in 2001.