Employers created more jobs than expected in February, the government reported Friday, pushing the US unemployment rate down to 7.7 percent, its lowest level in four years.
The 236,000 new jobs were well ahead of forecasts, signaling broad improvement in the economy, with the strongest hiring in business and professional services, construction, and health care, according to the US Department of Labor. They helped bring the unemployment rate down from 7.9 percent in January.
It is too soon to call it an upward trend, said Nigel Gault, chief US Economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, in part because the January numbers were revised down slightly.
But with new jobs averaging 191,000 over the last three months, he sees room for optimism about the private sector.
There were 48,000 new construction jobs in the month, the strongest showing since March 2007, Gault said. Since September, construction employment has risen by 151,000, according to the government’s report.
“I would take some comfort from the construction numbers,” in particular, Gault said. They appear to indicate that the housing recovery that started late last year is taking hold, he said.
Stock markets rose on the news. The Dow Jones industrial average, which this week surpassed its pre-financial-crisis peak and set all-time highs, closed Friday at 14,397.07, up 67.58 points on the day.
It was too soon to see the impact of the sequester, the controversial government budget cuts that kicked in a week ago, economists said. But it is likely that defense contractors have been holding back on hiring for a few months in anticipation of the cuts. And the sequester could slow private sector hiring going forward, as the government spends less money.
Still, Chris Hyzy, investment chief of US Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management, is forecasting growth in hiring and the economy over the next three to five years.And while workers continue to come off the job rolls, he believes it’s more about baby boomers retiring than about frustrated people giving up on finding work.
“The baby boomers are leaving and going into retirement,’’ Hyzy said. Not only does that open up jobs for younger workers, he noted, but the boomers tend to spend money in retirement, on travel and other leisure activities. That, too, fuels the economy.
In February, the number of long-term unemployed people — those who have been out of work for 27 weeks or longer — was unchanged at 4.8 million. Those people accounted for 40 percent of all the unemployed.