National jobless rate lowest in four years

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February's national unemployment rate of 7.7 percent was the lowest level seen since the depths of the Great Recession, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday.

The country added 236,000 new jobs last month -- 246,000 in the private sector, a figure slightly offset by the loss of 10,000 government jobs.

The seasonally adjusted rate was two-tenths of a percentage point below the 7.9 percent rate in January. National unemployment has hovered just below 8 percent since September. The last time unemployment was below 7.7 was in December 2008, when it was 7.3 percent.

PNC Financial Services' chief economist Stuart Hoffman said the report showed a month of moderate job growth but he saw it as a good sign that hiring gains were broadly based through a number of sectors, such as manufacturing, construction and financial and business services.

"It wasn't just limited to one industry," he said.

Other good signs for the economy: Average weekly wages rose from $818.03 to $821.79 and the average number of hours worked a week rose from 34.4 hours to 34.5 hours.

Wall Street responded to the news with gains across all three of the major market indexes: the Dow Jones industrial average gained 67.58 points, or 0.47 percent, to finish the week at $14,397.07; the Standard & Poor's 500 index was up 6.92, or 0.45 percent, to close at 1,551.18; and the Nasdaq closed up 12.38 points, or 0.38 percent, finishing at 3,244.37.

While most economists agreed the unemployment report was a positive one -- particularly when measured against reports of the last five years -- there were still signs that all is not well for American workers.

The labor force participation rate, a measure of how many adults are working or looking for work, fell in February to 63.5 percent, its lowest level since 1981. There were 130,000 fewer workers in the labor force, while the number of people who are outside of the labor force, meaning they are neither working nor looking, grew by 296,000.

The ranks of those who remained out of work grew slightly to 4.8 million, with long-term unemployed workers still accounting for 40.2 percent of that population.

The establishment survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which asks employers about their payrolls, produced better news than the household survey used to determine the unemployment rate.

Manufacturing employment grew by 14,000 jobs, though the ranks of those making primary metals such as steel fell by 2,000 jobs. There were 6,400 more jobs fabricating metal products in February.

Health care added 32,000 jobs, with hospitals accounting for 8,900. Educational services, which are non-government education jobs, cut 14,700 jobs.

The government sector cut 10,000 jobs nationwide -- the U.S. Postal Service trimmed 4,200 jobs, and public schools eliminated 2,500 jobs across the country.

February was the last month before the federal budget sequestration took affect, which brought automatic budget cuts to defense spending and human services.

Nigel Gault, an economist at Lexington, Mass.-based IHS Global Insight, said the threat of the sequester most likely had an impact on hiring -- some defense contractors pulled back in advance of this week's government contraction, for example -- and he has cut back on forecasts for economic growth.

Mr. Gault said that while the sequestration-driven government cuts are expected to slow economic growth, he was encouraged that there has been sustained growth in construction employment for five months. In February, the construction sector added 48,000 jobs.

The White House also singled out the growth in construction jobs as a good sign for the economy.

"In the last two years, the construction sector has added 306,000 jobs, with half of that increase occurring in the last five months," Alan B. Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in his statement on the jobs report.

"The economy has now added private sector jobs every month for three straight years, and a total of 6.35 million jobs have been added over that period," Mr. Krueger said.

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Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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