Despite constant predictions to the contrary, the American job juggernaut isn't slowing down.
In February, for the fourth straight month, employers added more than 300,000 new jobs to their payrolls, the Department of Labor reported Friday. As it has month after month, the hiring surge far exceeded economists' expectations. It brought the total number of jobs created in the past half year to an astounding 2 million.The unemployment rate edged down a bit from 4.7 percent to 4.6 percent, the 24-year low that it reached last November. The percentage of Americans working, 64.2 percent, remains at an all-time high.
And, perhaps most important, the report underscored how briskly the real pay of average American workers is rising now.
The labor market hasn't been this strong for this long since before the 1973 oil crisis, reflecting a happy confluence of optimism, low inflation, moderate interest rates, high stock prices and a soothing absence, so far, anyway, of external shocks or policy blunders. While it is hard to imagine that the current pace can continue for long, there are few indications of an abrupt slowdown.
"We must be pretty close to full employment. What's amazing isn't the demand for workers but the ability of the economy to keep delivering them," said Ed Yardeni at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell.
Total hours worked were up sharply in February and the January increase was revised upward. The steep rise in hours - at a 6.5 percent annual rate - implies that the gross domestic product is still growing at a fairly robust pace this quarter.
And a sharp pickup in temporary employment, a gain of 52,000 such jobs in February, is another possible forerunner of more permanent hiring in coming months. (A recent study by the Chicago Fed suggests that temporary hiring is a reliable leading indicator of future payroll job growth.)
As the labor market gets tighter, pay is going up faster. This was perhaps the biggest news buried in Friday's employment report. Average hourly earnings jumped by 8 cents in February to $12.60.
Although the Labor Department cautioned that the measure is always volatile, and that last month's increase may have been exaggerated by statistical anomalies, the rise for over the past twelve months is just over 4 percent, up sharply from the 3 percent gain of the year earlier.