U.S. job gains in July fell slightly short of expectations, and the unemployment rate did not budge from June, the Labor Department reported Friday.
American companies added 215,000 jobs for the month, while the unemployment rate remained at 5.3 percent, the department said. The labor force participation rate also remained flat at 62.6, its lowest level since 1977.
Economists polled by Reuters expected nonfarm payroll gains of 223,000 in July, with the unemployment rate at 5.3 percent. However, the payroll growth was directly in line with a Dow Jones estimate of 215,000.
The U.S. stock markets, worried about a possible Federal Reserve interest rate increase, opened slightly lower Friday after the report was issued.
The Fed has scrutinized job market data as it determines when to raise the federal funds rate for the first time in nine years. After its most recent meeting late last month, the central bank's policy committee said the labor market "continued to improve" while posting "solid" job gains.
Some observers noted that the solid, but not spectacular, gains provided more fuel for the Fed to hike interest rates in September.
"We have nearly all year expected a rate increase in September and we see no reason to alter that view with the release of today's report," BTIG strategist Dan Greenhaus said in a note after the report.
"It is easily enough to keep the Fed on course for a September liftoff," economist Paul Ashworth of Capital Economics said in a note.
In the Labor Department report, a broader measure that includes those who have stopped looking for work or working part-time for economic reasons slipped to 10.4 percent from 10.5 percent in June. The number of seasonally adjusted part-time workers dropped from the previous month.
The average workweek for all employees on nonfarm payrolls rose slightly to 34.6 hours. Average hourly earnings climbed by five cents to $24.99.
The Labor Department also revised its May gains up, to 260,000 from 254,00 previously. June additions were revised to 231,000 from 223,000.
Retail trade and health care helped push job gains in July. Employment in retail trade rose by 36,000 in July, while the health care industry added 28,000 positions.
Manufacturing positions climbed by 15,000 and motor vehicle parts and dealers jobs rose by 13,000.
A mixed bag of separate labor market metrics surfaced before Friday's Labor Department report. American companies added a lower-than-expected 185,000 jobs in July, according to the ADP private payrolls report this week.
The employment cost index—the broadest measure of labor costs—rose 0.2 percent in the second quarter, the Labor Department said last week. That marked the smallest increase in 33 years and fell short of a consensus 0.6 percent increase, according to economists polled by Reuters.
However, the Labor Department said new applications for state unemployment benefits totaled 270,000 in the week ended Aug. 1, rising less than expected. Jobless claims have stayed below 300,000—a level that signals a strengthening labor market—for 22 straight weeks.