Robust job growth fueled by low interest rates and mild winter weather returned the nation's unemployment rate to a 24-year low of 4.6 percent in February.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate declined from 4.7 percent in January and December and matched November's 4.6 percent rate, which was the lowest since October 1973, the Labor Department said Friday.Employers created a greater-than-expected 310,000 jobs, on top of 375,000 in January. That included 41,000 new construction jobs and 17,000 jobs in the finance industry.

Commissioner Katharine G. Abraham of the Bureau of Labor Statistics said a drop in mortgage rates, to a four-year low of just under 7 percent, has increased demand for new homes.

"In addition, the severe rain and ice storms in some parts of the country have spurred hiring for cleanup and rebuilding," she said. "Finally . . . this winter's weather has been sufficiently mild in many parts of the country to allow the continuation of construction activity that ordinarily would have been curtailed."

She noted that mortgage brokers accounted for 7,000 of the new finance industry jobs "partly reflecting refinancing activity that was prompted by low mortgage rates."

Other areas of strong growth included temporary help firms, 52,000 jobs; computer and data processing, 20,000; health services, 25,000; government, 36,000, and transportation, 34,000, mostly at airlines and trucking firms.

Overall though, the Asian crisis seems to have helped the American job market by pushing interest rates down. The percentage of adults with jobs - 64.2 percent - remained at an all-time high.

The department's account of hours worked reflected the split between manufacturing and other economic sectors. Overall, average weekly hours edged up one-tenth of an hour to 34.9 hours. But the manufacturing work week slipped from 42.1 hours to 42 hours and factory overtime fell from 4.9 hours to 4.7 hours.

Average hourly wages increased a robust 0.6 percent to $12.60. That's up 4.1 percent from a year ago.