U.S. adds a strong 242,000 jobs; rate holds at low 4.9%
WASHINGTON — U.S. employers added a robust 242,000 workers in February as retailers, restaurants and health care providers drove another solid month for the resilient American job market.
The Labor Department said Friday that the unemployment rate held steady at 4.9 percent.
The pickup in job gains shows that the U.S. economy has largely weathered a broader global slowdown without suffering much blowback. Worker pay slipped last month after accelerating in January. But more Americans who had been sitting on the sidelines began searching for jobs and found them.
Employers expect solid consumer demand in the months ahead even though the stock market has turned turbulent, oil prices have hurt energy industry jobs and a stronger dollar has reduced export sales.
Retailers added 54,900 jobs last month. Restaurants and bars added 40,200.
Hiring by construction companies, retailers and health care providers has offset layoffs at manufacturers and fossil fuel companies — two sectors squeezed by the pressures of uncertainty in China, sluggishness in Europe, declining oil prices and a stronger dollar.
Job losses for the mining sector — an area that includes the battered energy industry — have totaled 140,400 in the past 12 months. And manufacturing has added just 12,000 jobs over that time.
Consumers have provided the foundation for much of the job market’s improvement in what’s become something of a self-sustaining cycle. More than 2.7 million workers hired over the past 12 months have bolstered spending on autos, housing and meals out. As unemployment has dropped, more companies have begun to raise pay to attract workers, thereby fueling more hiring as people’s ability to spend, invest and save has increased.
Friday’s jobs report is sure to be closely monitored by the Federal Reserve and presidential candidates as a gauge of how well the economy is extending its 6½-year rebound from the Great Recession.
Recent reports have pointed to continued improvement. Over the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have risen 2.5 percent. Annual pay growth has perked up after having increased at a roughly 2 percent pace in the previous few years. The wage acceleration has fed optimism among many economists despite the difficulties worldwide.
The hiring and rising incomes have translated into more consumer spending in several key sectors. Auto sales rose 7 percent over last February to 1.3 million vehicles, according to Autodata Corp.
Purchases of existing homes rose 0.4 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.47 million, according to the National Association of Realtors. That improvement followed a solid 2015, when sales achieved their highest level in nine years.
And spending at restaurants has risen 6.1 percent over the past 12 months.
Still, troubles abroad have tempered U.S. economic growth. China, the world’s second-largest economy, is struggling with high corporate debts and slower growth. Oil prices have tumbled amid relatively low demand. The strong dollar has crushed exports, while the stock market has dropped in an extended bout of volatility this year.
Mining companies, including oil and gas drillers, have shed 130,600 jobs in the past 12 months. Factories have hired just 45,000 workers from a year ago as job gains in the manufacturing sector have slowed after a strong 2014.
The Fed is looking for further wage growth. The central bank is considering whether to raise interest rates again in the face of global risks that could imperil broader economic growth. In December, the Fed raised rates from record lows — its first increase in nearly a decade.
Investors have largely dismissed the likelihood of another rate hike at the upcoming Fed meeting March 16-17.