WASHINGTON — A burst of hiring last month added 236,000 U.S. jobs and reduced the unemployment rate to 7.7 percent from 7.9 percent in January. The robust gains suggested that the economy can strengthen further despite higher taxes and government spending cuts.
The February jobs report issued Friday provided encouraging details: The unemployment rate is at its lowest level in four years. Job growth has averaged more than 200,000 a month since November. Wages rose. And the job gains were broad-based, led by the most construction hiring in six years.
The unemployment rate, which had been stuck at 7.8 percent or above since September, declined mostly because more people found work. Another factor was that 130,000 people without jobs stopped looking for work last month. The government doesn't count them as unemployed.
The unemployment rate is calculated from a survey of households. The job gains are derived from a separate survey of employers.
The 236,000 jobs that were added in February is a historically solid total. And it would have been higher if governments were contributing to job growth, rather than subtracting from it as they have for nearly four years. Governments cut 10,000 jobs in February.
If governments at the local, state and national levels combined were adding their long-term average of 20,000 to 25,000 jobs a month, February's total job gains would have been around 260,000.
Hiring has accelerated since summer. Employers have added an average of 195,000 jobs a month from December through February. They had averaged 181,000 gains from September through November and 135,000 from June through August.
Stock prices rose modestly Friday morning after the report was released at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time. Another day of stock gains would give the Dow Jones industrial average its fourth straight record close.
The government said employers added slightly fewer jobs in January than the government had first estimated. Job gains were lowered to 119,000 from an initially estimated 157,000. Still, December hiring was a little stronger than first thought, with 219,000 jobs added instead of 191,000.
Robust auto sales and a steady housing recovery are spurring more hiring, which could trigger more consumer spending and stronger economic growth. The construction industry added 48,000 in February; it's added a solid 151,000 since September. Manufacturing gained 14,000 jobs last month and 39,000 since November.
Retailers added 24,000 jobs, a sign that they anticipate healthy consumer spending in the coming months. Education and health services gained 24,000. And the information industry, which includes publishing, telecommunications and film, added 20,000, mostly in the movie industry.
The economy is generating more higher-paying jobs in industries like accounting, engineering, and information technology. That's raising average pay, which will help offset the hit that Americans took from higher Social Security taxes and gas prices.
Hourly wages rose 4 cents to $23.82 last month. Wages have risen 2.1 percent over the past year, slightly ahead of inflation. Higher pay is vital to the economy because consumer spending drives 70 percent of economic activity.
"We're seeing the mix of jobs improve," said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics.
The improved job market can also benefit countries that sell goods and services to U.S. consumers and businesses.
"All you have to do is look at the trade numbers," says Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group. "The strength in the U.S. economy is leading to faster growth in imports."
Imports rose 2 percent in January from December. Those from China surged 7 percent.