U.S. employers added 236,000 jobs last month, helping to drive down the national unemployment rate to 7.7 percent — the lowest level in four years.
Though the Labor Department said 130,000 jobless people stopped looking for work in February, the overall report was encouraging.
That the unemployment rate fell from 7.9 percent in January to 7.7 percent in February, in spite of higher taxes and government spending cuts, is itself good news.
But the Labor Department also said job growth has averaged more than 200,000 a month since November, wages were higher in February, and job gains were broad-based, led by the most construction hiring in six years.
“It really should cause people to rethink their weak first-half growth estimates,” said Drew Matus, deputy U.S. chief economist at UBS Securities LLC in Stamford, Conn., who correctly forecast the unemployment rate. “People counted out the U.S. consumer a little too easily on the payroll-tax increases.”
Ohio also released its most recent unemployment rates on Friday, though Ohio’s numbers were from January.
The state’s February jobless figures aren’t due out for two more weeks.
The state’s unemployment rate rose in January for the first time in 19 months, but state officials and economists say the rise isn’t necessarily bad news.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services reported Friday that the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in January was 7 percent, up from 6.7 percent in December.
However, officials said Ohio’s economy actually gained about 3,800 jobs in January, led primarily by gains in goods-producing industries such as construction and manufacturing.
What caused the state’s unemployment rate to jump was a significant increase in Ohio’s labor force. The state said 11,000 more people were in the labor force in January than in December.
“I think there’s positive news in this month’s numbers,” said Benjamin Johnson, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Job and Family Services. “The increase in total non-ag improvement is good, the growing labor force is good, and something we’ve been waiting for. It remains to be seen whether it’s the beginning of a trend or something specific to this month.”
The labor force counts both those who are working, and those who are actively searching for work. The latter number has been falling consistently since mid-2009, first as people lost their jobs and later as many of the unemployed gave up on finding work.
A spike in the labor force could suggest some discouraged workers are feeling more confident about their prospects and jumping back into the job market.
For that reason, economists say that it’s not uncommon for the unemployment rate to actually go up as a recovery strengthens.
“As more people come in and say it’s worth my while to look for a job, you can see the labor force expand and you can see the unemployment rate go up,” Mekael Teshome, an economist with PNC Bank in Pittsburgh, told The Blade.
January was actually the second month that Ohio’s labor force expanded, though the 1,000-person jump from November to December is hardly enough to call it the start of a trend.
“I know on the surface of it, the increase in the unemployment rate might be a disappointment, but I think underneath all of that we do have a positive trend,” Mr. Teshome said. “We are still in a persistent recovery and it’s modest. … I’m kind of optimistic I think about the coming year.”
The state said Ohio employers added 29,100 jobs from January, 2012, to January, 2013. In 2012, the January unemployment rate was 7.6 percent.
Earlier this week, officials in Michigan said the unemployment rate held steady at 8.9 percent in January. The rate was down from 9.2 percent in January, 2012.
The state said Michigan employers added approximately 27,000 jobs in January, though officials cautioned job gains could be overstated because of difficulties with seasonal adjustments.
Officials said Michigan employers have added a total of 48,000 jobs since January, 2012.
“After a recovery period in 2010 from the national recession, and strong gains posted in 2011, Michigan’s labor market stabilized in 2012,” Rick Waclawek, director of the Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, said in a statement. “The manufacturing sector led the way with sustained job gains over the past year.”
In spite of all the fuss made over unemployment rates, Bruce Weinberg, a professor of economics at Ohio State University, said it’s important to take a broader view when trying to gauge the health of the economy.
“The unemployment rate is really appealing because it’s one number that really can capture a lot of what’s going on in the labor market, but at the same time it’s just one number, and the problem with one number is it can miss a lot of what’s going on.”
Still, he said the recovery for Ohio has been stronger than for the nation as a whole, even though it’s not happening as fast as most people would like.
“If you look at it, it has been sort of a long, slow slog uphill as opposed to a really quick rebound,” he said. “People would love a quick rebound, but that just wasn’t in the cards for this one.”
The Blade's news services contributed to this report.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: email@example.com or 419-724-6134.