Job creation ended 2018 on a powerful note, with nonfarm payrolls surging by 312,000 in December though the unemployment rate rose to 3.9 percent.
The jobless rate, which was last higher in June, rose for the right reason as 419,000 new workers entered the workforce and the labor force participation rate increased to 63.1 percent. The participation level was up 0.2 percentage points from November and 0.4 percentage points compared with a year earlier.
A broader measure of unemployment that includes discouraged workers and those holding part-time jobs for economic reasons held steady at 7.6 percent.
In addition to the big job gains, wages jumped 3.2 percent from a year ago and 0.4 percent over the previous month. The year-over-year increase is tied with October for the best since April 2009. The average work week rose 0.1 hour to 34.5 hours.
Economists surveyed by Dow Jones had been expecting job growth of just 176,000, though they projected the unemployment rate to fall to 3.6 percent. The wage number also was well above expectations of 3 percent on the year and 0.3 percent from November.
"The far bigger than expected 312,000 jump in non-farm payrolls in December would seem to make a mockery of market fears of an impending recession," Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said in a note. He added that the report "suggests the US economy still has considerable forward momentum."
The report, released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, comes amid concern over whether the U.S. economy is part of a global deceleration, despite turning in its best year since the Great Recession.
Data released this week showed a key manufacturing mark hitting a two-year low and mortgage volume at its lowest in 18 years.
"The economy has been slowing, but someone forgot to tell the labor markets," said Jim Baird, chief investment officer for Plante Moran Financial Advisors. "Employers, it would seem, didn't get the memo from Mr. Market that it's time to tighten their belts."
The jobs market, however, remains hot.
Payrolls growth totaled 2.6 million in 2018, the highest since 2015 and well above the 2.2 million in 2017.
Health care led the way in new jobs, adding 50,000 for the month thanks to 38,000 new positions in ambulatory services and 7,000 more in hospitals. The industry saw a boom of 346,000 for the year, compared with a 284,000 gain the year before.
Restaurants and bars added 41,000 to the close the year with a 235,000 gain, down from 261,000 in 2017.
Construction also was one of the big gainers despite a slumping housing market. The industry added 38,000 jobs in December, bringing the annual total to 280,000, a 12 percent gain from 2017's 250,000.
Manufacturing also tuned in a solid 32,000 gain for the month, with the bulk of the growth coming from the 19,000 positions added in the key durable goods sector. The sector also saw a surge in 2018, with the 284,000 new positions representing a 37 percent rise from the previous year.
Another closely watched sector, retail, posted growth of 24,000 thanks to a holiday season boost. For the year, retail added 92,000, reversing the loss of 29,000 in 2017.
Government jobs saw a gain of 11,000.
Previous months also saw positive revisions, adding to the upbeat tone for the year. November saw its disappointing 155,000 original report revised up to 176,000, while October's count went from 237,000 to 274,000, for a net gain of 58,000 from the previous tallies.
Those revisions brought the three-month average up to a strong 254,000.
The report comes at a time of heightened market concerns over the Federal Reserve's future path. The U.S. central bank raised interest rates four times in 2018 in an effort to prevent the economy from overheating, but President Donald Trump has criticized the Fed for endangering the economic recovery.
Futures traders expect the Fed to hold steady through the year, and in fact are pricing in a 45 percent of a rate cut by the end of 2019.