Jobless rate dips again

WASHINGTON — Job growth soared ahead last month, and the unemployment rate fell as people who had been stuck at home because of January snow returned to work. The encouraging report is the most solid evidence yet that the economic recovery is gaining momentum as 2011 gets under way.

Employers added 192,000 jobs in February, the Labor Department said Friday. The number closely matched analysts' expectations, accelerating from a revised 63,000 jobs added in January. The unemployment rate edged down to 8.9 percent, from 9 percent.

It is perhaps the best all-around jobs report in three years. (Although the pace of job creation was faster for three months last spring, those numbers were inflated by temporary Census hiring.) Many analysts viewed the rapid decline in the unemployment rate in December and January as too good to be true, expecting the February number to inch back up to 9.1 percent. The further drop in the jobless rate was a sign that conditions could indeed be getting better for American workers.

Private employers may finally be gaining the confidence to start hiring. They added 222,000 jobs, partly offset by the loss of 30,000 government jobs. And the dip in unemployment showed that the steep drops in December and January were real and not statistical aberrations.

For the past several months, the unemployment report has given an uneven picture of the state of the U.S. economy. But the quicker pace of job gains now matches other measures of economic growth, such as surveys of businesses and weekly reports on unemployment insurance benefits.

"This is a solid report that contains a lot of good news and basically confirms where we thought we were in this economic recovery," said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo. "It's a very fair representation of where the economy is."

The report is not without caveats. Most notably, the January jobs numbers were held down by snowstorms across much of the country that kept people home. So, part of the February gains were likely a bounce-back effect of people returning to work as the ice melted.

And while employers created more than the 130,000 jobs needed to keep up with the population growth, the margin was small enough that it will still take years to put the 13.7 million still unemployed back to work.

Other data is also a reminder that the U.S. economy isn't out of the woods yet. The ultimate barometer of the job market — the ratio of employed workers to the total U.S. population — didn't budge, despite the stronger job creation. And the proportion of the unemployed who have been out of work for more than six months actually edged up.

Also, wages appear stagnant. The length of the average workweek was unchanged, at 34.2 hours, and average hourly earnings inched up a penny to $22.87.

But those negatives don't overwhelm a generally more positive tone found in the details of the monthly report. According to the survey on which the unemployment rate is based, 250,000 more people described themselves as employed, while 190,000 fewer counted themselves as wanting a job but unable to find one.

A broader measure of joblessness that captures people who are working part time but want full-time jobs and those who have given up looking for work out of frustration also fell, from 16.1 percent to 15.9 percent.

The unemployment rate fell most steeply among teenagers. For people ages 16 to 19, the rate dropped 1.8 percentage points to 23.9 percent. The rate edged down or held even among people of almost every racial and age group

The employment gains were broad-based, with every major sector except for retail adding positions. Manufacturers added 33,000 jobs; professional and business services firms added 47,000; and the health-care sector added 36,200. The long-suffering construction sector added 33,000 jobs.