WASHINGTON -- U.S. companies added jobs for the first time in seven months in February, helping push down the unemployment rate to 5.5 percent in the strongest signal yet that the recession is over.
"It's over. This is it," said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Economy.com, a consulting company. "This is the final nail in the recession's coffin."
But economists also cautioned that the pain hasn't ended for people looking for work.
The Labor Department reported Friday that businesses added 66,000 jobs in February, breaking a string of losses that had averaged 146,000 a month since the recession started in March 2001. It was the largest employment increase since February 2001.
Warm weather, a slow holiday hiring season and reopening automobile factories all contributed to the February increase, which probably won't be sustained.
"The 66,000-job increase overstates the case for the economy's recovery, but it clearly makes the case that the economy is recovering," Zandi said.
The report sent stock prices higher. The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 47 points and the Nasdaq up 48.
Economists say January will probably be seen as the month in which the recession ended because of February's job gains. The National Bureau of Economic Research, the traditionally recognized arbiter of when recessions begin and end in the United States, declared March as the starting date because employment peaked then, and has steadily dropped until now.
February's jobless rate dropped by 0.1 percentage point to 5.5 percent, the lowest level since October.
President Bush welcomed the decline, but said that Americans out of work or on the brink of being laid off still need help.