Job candidates fill out forms for interviews at the Goodwill Southern California… (Damian Dovarganes, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Providing solid evidence of a strengthening economy, employers extended their brisk hiring into February — a trend that, if it continues, could change the dynamics of the presidential election campaign.
Employers overall added 227,000 jobs last month, powered by robust gains in healthcare, manufacturing and business services. Job growth over the last three months has averaged 245,000 a month — about 100,000 more a month than in the previous year, the Labor Department said Friday.
If sustained, the improving economic fortunes, especially in certain swing states that include the hard-hit Sun Belt and industrial Midwest, could provide a big boost to President Obama and his reelection chances.
Seizing on the new report Friday, Obama was careful to avoid gloating about the job growth but nonetheless said: "The key now, our job now, is to keep this economic engine churning."
His Republican opponents focused on the still-high jobless rate, homing in as they have in the past on the fact that unemployment remains above 8%. The Obama administration projected in early 2009 that the nation's jobless rate would be brought below 8% after the Recovery Act stimulus package took effect.
The Republicans' argument becomes more complicated because of the positive top-line numbers.
"They have to walk the line between not appearing to cheer down the economy but also pointing out the very real underlying problems," said Matt McDonald, a GOP economic strategist. "If I were them I would be talking about the millions of missing workers."
Despite the job gains, the nation's unemployment rate held steady at 8.3% in February, after falling for five straight months. Economists say that's because an improving economy prompts more people who have been out of work to reenter the job market. The nation's labor force — the total number of workers and those looking for work — swelled by nearly half a million people last month from January.
The total number of unemployed people last month remained at nearly 13 million, with 43% of them reporting that they had been out of work for more than six months. An additional 8.1 million workers said they were stuck in part-time jobs because of slow business or cutbacks, although they wanted full-time hours.
Most states, including California, have seen more consistent and solid job growth recently, though the progress has been uneven and unemployment remains high in many areas.
On Friday, state officials said California's jobless rate dropped in January to a nearly three-year low of 10.9% from a revised 11.2% in December.
Although analysts said job growth was likely to slow somewhat in the next several months, the latest report was widely seen as an indication that the economy is now on a steady growth path after 21/2 years of a bumpy recovery marked by fits and starts.
Clearly, more people are seeing brighter job prospects. The increased confidence is reflected in Friday's data that show more workers are leaving their jobs voluntarily.
J.C. Derenoncourt, 33, had been working full-time in data entry to support his MBA degree studies at night. Last month, after searching for a new job since October 2010, he landed a position as a cost accountant for a Rhode Island plastics manufacturer, Teknor Apex Co.
"It's been pretty tough; I had lots of rejections," the Haiti native said. "That's why I'm so excited."
Estimates for job growth in the next several months range from 150,000 to 200,000 a month. The forecast for somewhat slower job creation reflects weaker U.S. economic growth this quarter.
Lingering problems from the housing collapse, as well as weakness in Europe and more recently higher oil prices, are weighing on the economy.
Moreover, it's unclear to what extent the recent job gains have been inflated by the mild winter weather. That could mean less need in the spring for new employees at businesses such as restaurants, trucking and construction firms.
Scott George, who runs a dental and hearing practice in southwestern Missouri, attributed his company's record business in January and February partly to the warm weather that allowed more people to travel to his rural offices. The spurt in patients prompted him to hire another dental assistant this year.
Healthcare over all added 49,000 jobs last month after increasing payrolls by 43,300 in January — making it the largest two-month gain on record, said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
He doubted that this frenetic pace could be sustained.
Still, Baker was encouraged by the jobs report, especially the data on public-sector employment. In the last two years, local governments slashed an average of 16,000 jobs a month, mostly at schools. States added to the pain by cutting 4,000 jobs a month on average.