After a stretch of economic expansion so weak that Main Street struggled to detect any improvement, three consecutive months of solid employment growth have begun to lift the mood of consumers and the unemployed.
The economy added 227,000 jobsin February, the Labor Department reported Friday, and though the unemployment rate held steady at 8.3 percent, that was largely because nearly half a million people had joined, or resumed, the search for work in hopes their prospects had improved.
“We’ve seen a lot less Eeyore,” said Sherry Leginski, operations director at CareerPlace, a job placement center in the Chicago suburb of Barrington. “Maybe they’re turning a little bit more Tigger instead of Eeyore. They’re feeling better.”
Looking over her recent cases, Ms. Leginski cited a new college graduate who found work helping the developmentally disabled, a 60-year-old manufacturing specialist whose contract job in Mexico had led to full-time work back home, and a financial services worker who had landed a management job in Charlotte, N.C.
Such improvement, if it continues, will most likely be a boost for President Obama as he makes a case to voters that his economic policies have been working. Republicans quickly criticized it as too little, too late. Still, the report coincided with other signs of strength, like a surge in consumer confidence and growing strength in manufacturing.
“There is no real cloud in the silver lining of this morning’s jobs report,” wrote Steven Blitz, chief economist of ITG Investment Research.
The big question was whether such improvement could be sustained, or even accelerate, as is necessary to significantly drive down the unemployment rate. Most projections call for slower economic growth in the first quarter of this year than the last quarter of 2011, and a second report on Friday further reduced expectations. The report, showing a higher-than-expected trade deficit, prompted firms like JPMorgan Chase and Macroeconomic Advisers to lower their growth forecasts for this quarter.
The focus, though, remained on more encouraging signs. Public sector job losses, which have been steep, have slowed. Job gains for December and January were stronger than previously reported, the Labor Department said, accounting for 61,000 more jobs than the department estimated last month, and the February report could also have understated the improvement.
Patrick O’Keefe, director of economic research at J. H. Cohn, an accounting and consulting firm, said the recent run of gains was approaching “escape velocity.”
There were job gains across a broad swath of industries, including manufacturing, finance, professional services like law and accounting, hotels and restaurants, and mining. The construction industry lost jobs after two months of gains, and the retail sector shrank. For black men, the jobless rate increased, to 14.3 percent from 12.7 percent, while the biggest employment gains went to whites, black women and, overwhelmingly, college graduates.
President Obama said that more companies were bringing jobs back to the United States and that manufacturing was adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s.
Speaking from the floor of a new manufacturing plant in Virginia, President Obama said, “Day by day, we’re restoring this economy from crisis.”
In a campaign appearance in Jackson, Miss., Mitt Romney, a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, pointed out that there were still 24 million Americans who were unemployed or underemployed, working part time when they would like to have full-time jobs.
Republicans said that President Obama had not done enough to reduce burdens on businesses or to expand domestic energy production, pointing to his blocking of the Keystone pipeline. Virtually all the growth in the trade deficit was linked to higher oil prices, according to an analysis by Capital Economics, a research firm.
Gas prices have not yet risen enough to slow consumer spending, but Friday’s report showed that wages are lagging behind inflation.
“This underscores the Federal Reserve’s concerns about the economy,” said Diane Swonk, the chief economist at Mesirow Financial. “There’s still a lot of slack; the spending power’s not there.” Ms. Swonk estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the job gains were because of an unseasonably warm winter, essentially borrowing from spring’s normal uptick in activity.
But things are looking up for Martin Okekearu, 58, an engineer in Kansas City, Mo., who has had long dry spells in his eight-month search for work. In the last two weeks, he said, he has received two promising leads from manufacturing firms in the area. One found his résumé on the local employment center’s Web site. It had been posted there for six months.
Mr. Okekearu, who has a master’s degree in engineering management, was relieved to find that either job would make use of his skills. “My younger son says: ‘Daddy, they talk about somebody educated — you are one of them. They talk about somebody experienced — you are one of them,’ ” he said.
Others said it had become easier to find income, but only via temporary or freelance jobs.
“My feelings are mixed about the recovery,” said Pam Sexton, 45, also of Kansas City, who was laid off by Sprint in 2009. “So far, I’ve managed to find work, but a full-time, permanent job is somehow elusive to me.”
Temporary hiring, often a precursor to permanent hiring, increased by 45,000 jobs. “Companies are more and more interested in converting people from temp to full time,” said Tig Gilliam, chief executive of the Adecco Group North America, a staffing company. “That’s a really good indicator.”
Competition for highly skilled workers is on the rise, according to Applied Predictive Technologies, a technology company in Virginia that is planning to add 60 workers, mostly recent college graduates, to its staff of 150.
“The sense of nervousness and caution that people felt a couple of years ago has really dissipated,” said Catherine Baker, senior vice president for marketing and administration. “There’s a real war for talent going on."
The recovery has been here before, only to falter. Last February, March and April saw net gains of more than 200,000 jobs each month. But then the effects of high gas prices, the earthquake in Japan and the resurgence of the fiscal woes in Europe kicked in, slowing job growth to a crawl.
“Everyone got burned last year, from being elated over the better economic data only to have their hopes dashed come spring,” said Ellen Zentner, an economist with Nomura Securities International. “If we can get past April and these trends continue, I’ll breathe easy.”
This year, though, the economy appears to be somewhat less vulnerable to shocks. There were 1.4 million more jobs in January than there were last April, and they were spread across more industries and more cities. Consumers have paid down some of their debt and begun to make large purchases, particularly cars.
There was also some evidence that job growth might be stronger than the labor report suggests. For one thing, upward revisions are common during a recovery, and have occurred in each of the six preceding months.
Another good sign, analysts said, was the strength of job growth reported in the department’s household survey. The monthly employment report comes from two surveys — one of businesses, from which the net job growth is calculated, and one of households, which generates the unemployment rate. But the household survey also measures job growth, including some types, like new companies, that the business survey does not capture well.
Household survey respondents indicated that 879,000 more people were working in February than in January. Though it is not unusual for the two surveys to differ, it is unusual for the growth in the household survey to be so much greater.
More people looking for work was also a good sign, said Betsey Stevenson, former chief economist for the Labor Department and now a visiting professor at Princeton University. She noted that among the unemployed, there were fewer people who had recently lost their jobs and more people who had entered or re-entered the work force, or who had quit their jobs, presumably to look for something better.
“You didn’t want to quit your job a year and a half ago,” she said. “I take that as not just a sign that the labor market is improving, but that workers out there perceive that the labor market is improving.”
Robbie Brown and Jackie Calmes contributed reporting.