WASHINGTON — The United States added 227,000 jobs in February, again surprising economists with the breadth and brawn of the economic recovery. The country has put together the strongest three months of pure job growth since the Great Recession.
The unemployment rate stayed at 8.3 percent. It was the first time in six months that the rate did not fall, but that was only because a half-million Americans, perhaps finally seeing hope in the economy, started looking for work.
The Labor Department also said Friday that December and January, already two of the best months for jobs since the recession, were even stronger than first estimated. It added 61,000 jobs to its total for those two months combined.
Economists were expecting February job growth of 210,000.
“Overall, another very strong payroll report and there’s every chance that March will bring more of the same,” said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist with Capital Economics, an economic consulting company.
Since the beginning of December, the country has added 734,000 jobs. The only better three-month stretch since the recession was March through May 2010, when the government was hiring tens of thousands of temporary works for the census.
The improving jobs picture figures to improve the re-election chances for President Barack Obama and to complicate the political strategy for the Republicans competing for the right to replace him.
Obama was traveling Friday to a manufacturing plant run by Rolls-Royce, the maker of aircraft engines, in Virginia, which is expected to be closely contested in November. He planned to propose steps to help manufacturers create products and jobs.
Broad-based hiring in February
Hiring in February was broad-based and improved in both high-paying and low-paying industries. Manufacturing, mining and the professional services industry, which includes accounting work, all added jobs.
And government — federal, state and local — cut only 6,000 jobs in February and a revised 1,000 in January. Last year, they cut an average of 22,000 jobs a month, taking some of the economic punch out of job creation in the private sector.
In all, 142.1 million Americans reported that they had a job in February, the highest since January 2009, during the depths of the recession. Manufacturing payrolls are the highest since April 2009.
And over the past three months, the number of employed people has risen by 1.45 million, the biggest three-month gain since March 2000.
The government uses a survey of payrolls to determine how many jobs were added or lost each month. That is the survey that produced the 277,000 number. But the payroll survey tends to undercount small businesses and does not count the self-employed.
It uses a separate survey of American households to calculate the unemployment rate. That survey picks up hiring by companies of all sizes, including small businesses, companies just getting off the ground, farm workers and the self-employed.
The household survey found that 428,000 more Americans reported having jobs in February. When the economy is improving, many economists say, the household survey does the better job of picking up the shift because it detects small business hiring.
In the household survey, only people who are out of work and actively looking for a job are counted as unemployed. And one reason why the unemployment rate had fallen steadily over the previous five months, from 9.1 percent last August to 8.3 percent in January, was that so many people who were out of work gave up looking for a job.
But over the past two months, that trend appears to have reversed. In February, 476,000 people re-entered the labor force. Since the start of the year, that figure is almost 1 million — the strongest two months since January and February 2003.
Underemployment at three-year-low
A catchall measure of the unemployed and the so-called underemployed — people who are working part-time but would rather by working full-time — fell to 14.9 percent, the lowest the three years.
That figure includes three groups: the part-time workers who want full-time work, people who are unemployed and looking for work, and people who are unemployed and have stopped looking.
Other economic indicators have improved markedly in recent weeks. Consumer confidence in February was the highest in a year, and unemployment claims, the best measure of the pace of layoffs, have averaged 355,000 a week, near a four-year low.
Service companies, which employ most Americans, are expanding faster, according to a private survey this week. The industries of mining, educational services, transportation and warehousing are particularly strong.
Some companies have to hire because they can’t squeeze any more work from their employees. Worker productivity rose last year at its slowest pace in a generation, suggesting companies will have to hire to meet growing demand.
Wages are still rising only modestly. Average hourly pay increased by 3 cents in February to $23.31. In the past year, it has gone up only 1.9 percent, trailing the rate of inflation.
The factors restraining the U.S. economy seem to be easing, or at least less damaging than they used to be. Greece has struck a deal to get an international bailout and avoid a default later this month that could have rattled the world financial system.
And while the price of gas has crept up almost every day for a month, and is the highest on record for this time of year, that has less of a bite when the economy is growing and people feel more confident.