US employers added more than 240,000 jobs in January, beating economists’ expectations with the biggest gains in nearly a year and providing more evidence that the recovery may at last be gathering speed.
The hiring surge, which was spread across several key industries, helped push the unemployment rate to its lowest level in nearly three years, the Labor Department reported yesterday. The jobless rate, which has plunged nearly a point since summer, fell to 8.3 percent last month, from 8.5 percent in December.
‘‘This is easily the most positive news we’ve had in a couple of years on the jobs front,’’ said John E. Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo &Co. in Charlotte, N.C.
If the good news continues, it could change the dynamics of the presidential election, which is expected to turn on how well the economy is doing. Yesterday, President Obama highlighted the sunny January figures during an appearance in Virginia, urging Congress to renew the payroll tax cut and emergency unemployment benefits to help maintain the economy’s momentum. Both expire at the end of this month.
‘‘I want to send a clear message to Congress,’’ Obama said. ‘‘Do not slow down the recovery that we’re on. Don’t muck it up. Keep it moving in the right direction.’’
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination in Nevada, said he welcomed last month’s job gain and lower unemployment rate, but said the overall pace of job growth under Obama has been far too slow.
‘‘These numbers cannot hide the fact that President Obama’s policies have prevented a true economic recovery,’’ Romney said. ‘‘We can do better.’’
The nation has recovered slowly from the 2008 financial crisis and deep recession that followed. Nearly three years into the recovery, the nation has regained only about 3 million of the nearly 9 million jobs lost in the downturn.
Economists yesterday said they were heartened by the broad reach of January’s job gains. Investors were, too. The Dow Jones industrial average surged to its highest level since before the financial crisis, jumping 157 points yesterday and closing at 12,862 — its best showing since May 2008.
The technology heavy Nasdaq composite index gained 46 points, or 1.6 percent, to 2,906, the highest close since the end of 2000.
Professional and business services led January’s employment gains, adding 70,000 jobs. Manufacturing gained 50,000 jobs. Leisure and hospitality picked up 44,000 jobs, while health care employment grew by 31,000. The construction industry, meanwhile, added 21,000 jobs.
Other data released yesterday showed factory orders increasing and expansion in the service sector, which accounts for 80 percent of US jobs.
‘‘Another gain in construction employment, another gain in manufacturing. Professional services picked up,’’ said Brian Bethune, an economics professor at Amherst College. ‘‘This is what we’ve been missing.’’
Bethune attributed the improvements to several factors, including a mild winter that has helped construction, renewed momentum in emerging markets, and signs that the worst of the national debt crisis in Europe is over.
Silvia, the Wells Fargo economist, said that other positive indicators, such as a steady decrease in first time claims for unemployment benefits, suggest the economy will be able to sustain the recent momentum.
‘‘It’s not a boom,’’ he said, but ‘‘the economy has picked up and people are getting jobs.’’
That includes Shrewsbury resident Ed Hack, 51, who recently retired from the National Guard after 26 years of active duty. Hack admitted he worried about finding work, given reports of the difficult job market, but was quickly hired by a nonprofit that provides services, including educational and training programs, for veterans.
‘‘I was pretty certain that I would retire and be unemployed and have that added stress of looking for a job,’’ Hack said. ‘‘I’m really fortunate it was a seamless transition.’’
The economy, of course, still has a long way to go. Although the unemployment rate is falling, it is still historically high, and nearly double its prerecession level. Nearly 13 million Americans remain unemployed.
Alan Clayton-Matthews, a Northeastern University economics professor, said improvement in the US economy should boost the state because many Massachusetts businesses sell goods and services in the national market. The state has generally recovered faster the nation as whole, and its unemployment rate, 6.8 percent in December, is well below the national average.
‘‘What happens in the rest of the country affects us,’’ Clayton- Matthews said. ‘‘We export — outside of the state and to the rest of the world — about half of what we make in terms of goods and services.’’
EBSCO Publishing, a provider of research databases that has 900 employees at its headquarters in Ipswich, says it has been hiring and plans to continue.
Tim Collins, president of EBSCO, said his company originally pulled back on its growth plan during the economic downturn, but during the past year added 100 jobs, and expects to add that number of jobs this year, too. The reason: EBSCO’s customers, especially academic institutions, are doing better and increasing their orders.
‘‘As they grow, we grow,’’ he said.