By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER
U.S. employers stepped up hiring in February despite a blast of harsh winter weather, renewing hopes that the economy could accelerate this year.
February’s gain of 175,000 jobs, up from January’s 129,000, coincided with a rise in the unemployment rate to 6.7 percent from a five-year low of 6.6 percent. The rate rose because more people began seeking jobs but some didn’t find them. That’s still an encouraging sign: More job hunters suggest that people grew more optimistic about their prospects.
Friday’s figures from the Labor Department were a welcome surprise after recent reports showed that harsh weather had closed factories, lowered auto sales and slowed home sales. Along with a sharp increase in wages last month, the report suggests that some employers are confident that consumer spending will pick up in coming months.
The severe winter appeared to have less effect on hiring than most economists had feared. Construction companies, which usually stop work in bad weather, added 15,000 jobs. Manufacturing gained 6,000 for a second straight month. Government added 13,000 jobs, the most in six months.
“This suggests we should see solid gains in job growth in coming months,” said Michelle Meyer, senior U.S. economist at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research.
Daniel Alpert, managing partner at Westwood Capital, noted that roughly two-thirds of the job growth in January and February was in higher-paying industries. That’s a reversal from all of last year, when about two-thirds of job growth was in lower-paying fields.
A category called professional and business services, which includes better-paying jobs such as engineers, accountants and architects, along with some lower-paying jobs such as temporary work, added 79,000 jobs in February. That was the most in a year.
Retailers, though, lost 4,100 jobs, transportation and warehousing firms 3,600.
Despite February’s solid gain, the monthly average of 129,000 jobs that employers have added from December through February marks the weakest three-month stretch since mid-2012. It’s down from a 225,000 average for the previous three months.