WASHINGTON -- U.S. employers added more than a quarter-million jobs in February -- the most in four months -- in a bright sign that the labor market is on the mend. Wall Street rallied on the news, propelling the Dow Jones industrials to a 3 1/2-year high.
At the same time, more job seekers returned to the hunt, pushing the unemployment rate higher.
The latest picture of the country's employment climate, released by the Labor Department on Friday, showed that the nation's payrolls expanded by 262,000 last month. Gains were broadbased: Manufacturing, construction, retail, health care and business services were among the sectors seeing increases.
"Businesses are growing increasingly confident in the economy, and we're beginning to see more aggressive hiring," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group. "Companies are starting to put their money where their mouth is."
On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrials surged 107.52 points to close at 10,940.55, the highest since June 12, 2001.
February's payroll gain was nearly double the 132,000 jobs added in January.
Yet, for those who want to find work, the journey to snag a job can still be bumpy.
The overall civilian unemployment rate, which comes from a separate statistical survey from the payroll figures, rose to 5.4 percent in February from 5.2 percent in January. The increase partly reflected growth in the labor force as more people started job searches.
The jobless rate had been either 5.4 percent or 5.5 percent for the last six months of 2004.
President Bush welcomed the jobs report. "The economy's getting better," he said. "Today we got some good news."
Bush -- who faced questions from Democrats and other critics about the job market throughout his first term in office -- is looking for improvement as he pursues an overhaul of Social Security and of the nation's tax code.
In other economic news Friday, U.S. factories saw orders for goods rise by 0.2 percent in January, following a 0.5 percent rise in December. Gains in January reflected stronger demand for "nondurable" goods, such as food, leather products and chemicals.
Economists believe the economy in the January-to-March quarter is growing at a rate of around 4 percent, which would be a sufficient pace for solid -- but not spectacular -- job creation.
Against that backdrop, economists believe Federal Reserve policy-makers will stick with their measured approach to raising interest rates. The Fed has boosted rates six times, each by one-quarter point, since June 2004. Another increase of that size is expected March 22.
For workers and jobseekers, the employment climate can still be somewhat trying.
Workers' average weekly earnings held steady in February at $535.83. Analysts said they would keep a close eye on the direction of wages and how consumer spending, the economy's lifeblood, fares in the coming months.
The report said there were 8 million people unemployed in February with the average duration of 19.1 weeks, down slightly from 19.3 weeks in January.
The nation's manufacturers added 20,000 jobs in February after five straight months of losses. Employment gains in the manufacturing of motor vehicles and parts accounted for about half of the increase, the government said.
Construction companies added 30,000 jobs in February. Retailers also boosted payrolls by 30,000. Professional and businesses services increased employment by 81,000. Health care jobs grew by 23,000. Temporary help firms added 30,000 slots.
"It seems as if almost every industry is getting into the act and starting to hire again," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors.