US jobs surge 313,000 in February, unemployment steady

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Washington (AFP)

The US employment engine roared in February, adding more new jobs than any month in over a year as robust hiring picked up in construction, retail and manufacturing, the government reported Friday.

The result shattered economists' expectations, giving President Donald Trump a shot in the arm just as support for his "America First" economic agenda appeared to be on shaky ground.

Trump broke with the leaders of his own Republican Party this week, announcing steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports in a move denounced by top congressional leaders and drawing rebukes from industry, who said it could undermine the benefits of December's sweeping tax cuts and spark a global trade war.

The news also could heighten Wall Street anxieties that the Federal Reserve will feel the need to raise interest rates faster than expected in 2018, something that has caused heightened volatility on stock markets since last month.

But economists downplayed the inflation threat posed by the employment numbers.

Employers added 313,000 net new non-farm jobs last month, the biggest monthly increase since July 2016, while the unemployment rate remained steady at 4.1 percent for the fifth month in a row, according to the Labor Department's highly anticipated monthly report.

On top of the exceptionally strong February, the job gains in December and January were revised up by a combined 54,000, bringing average monthly job creation to a strong 242,000 a month for the latest three months.

Hourly wages gained 0.2 percent in the month, matching analyst expectations but putting compensation up 2.6 percent over the same month last year -- ahead of consumer inflation of 2.1 percent.

- The Fed: why worry? -

The goods-producing sector, including mining, manufacturing and the auto sector, added 100,000 new positions while the services sector added 187,00 jobs.

The public sector gained 26,000, with hiring added in education and at the state government level.

But, the Labor Department noted that gains in the clothing and general merchandise retail sectors, which added 33,000 new positions, suffered some distortion that made the gains appear stronger.

Retailers hired less than expected before the holidays but laid off fewer workers than expected afterwards, resulting in apparent gains for the sector after seasonal adjustment, the report said.

As a result, over the past four months, "employment in these industries has changed little on net," William Wiatrowski, acting commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said in a statement.

But there also were signs the hunger for increasingly scarce workers was causing companies to dig deeper into the labor pool.

The number of discouraged workers or those marginally attached the labor market -- such as people working part time who want a full-time position -- fell 149,000 from a year earlier to 373,000.

Still economists said the report does not fuel fears of runaway inflation.

"In a nutshell, the tax cuts are already boosting hiring, but as long as it's not causing wages to accelerate or the unemployment rate to drop, why worry?" Chris Low of FTN Financial said in a client note.

"That's the way the Fed is likely to see it too."

Fed officials in recent speeches have indicated that the economy can continue to add jobs without inflation becoming a concern, but say they are watching the situation closely.

The central bank is expected to raise the benchmark interest rate later this month, and at least twice more this year, but many economists now expect four rate hikes in 2018.