- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2012

The rapid improvement in the nation’s job market continued in February with employers adding another 227,000 jobs — enough new openings to hold the unemployment rate at 8.3 percent, the Labor Department reported Friday morning.

The politically sensitive jobless rate has fallen nearly a full percentage point from more than 9 percent in August. Reflecting the growing momentum, the department said 61,000 more jobs were added in December and January than previously reported. The three-month job gains were the strongest since May 2010.

“Hiring has picked up as companies have become more upbeat about business prospects,” said Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit. He estimates that the economy has accelerated this year to a robust 3.5 percent annual growth rate, up from 2.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011.

“After a week packed with good news, the market will lap up these numbers like a draft of champagne,” said Marcus Bullus, trading director of MB Capital. “For the U.S. economy to have piled on more than 200,000 jobs a month three times in a row will dispel any impression that the improvement is a blip.”

The revival in the job market has implications for the presidential race as well as the markets, he said.

“With such strong data, bulls will be vindicated, the President relieved,” he said.

February’s job gains were broad-based, but particularly strong in health care and business services such as computer design and temporary help. This key services area — a critical engine of growth for the economy — has added 1.4 million jobs since bottoming out in September 2009.

Other sources of economic strength recently — manufacturing, mining, restaurants and leisure activities — continued to add jobs, with over 30,000 new factory jobs primarily in big-ticket goods such as transportation equipment and furniture.

The improvement in employment prospects extended to the beleaguered government sector, where state and local governments, enjoying a revival of revenues with the return of economic growth, eased up on the slew of layoffs that produced 22,000 monthly job losses last year.

In a sign that employers have stretched their existing workforce as much as they can and have been forced to start hiring again, there was no increase in weekly hours. At 34.5 hours in February, the average workweek has returned to about where it stood before the recession began in December 2007.

Wage gains remained anemic, however, at 0.1 percent over the month and 1.9 percent over the past year.

John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo, noted that while more people returned to work and sought out jobs last month, the recovery has been painfully slow for the long-term unemployed and people in sectors like construction which were hit hardest by the recession. He predicted that growth will settle back to the 2 percent range and stay at a moderate pace for the remainder of the year.