An unexpected burst of job growth last month helped drive down the unemployment rate to its lowest point in three years, raising hopes that the long-sluggish labor market is gaining momentum despite significant challenges to the economy.
The government reported that the nation's unemployment rate fell to 8.3% in January, the fifth consecutive monthly decline, and that employers added 243,000 net new jobs last month — about 100,000 more than what analysts had forecast and the most in nine months.
Some economists cheered Friday's report, calling it a strong signal of better times ahead for American workers.
Other analysts were more cautious, noting that job growth was inflated by the unseasonably warm weather — construction reported sizable gains, for instance — and that the outlook remains constrained by government cuts, financially strapped consumers and a slowing global economy.
"This is a great surprise," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. "It was out of context with other things we've been seeing" in the economy, "so we can't be confident that this is the new state of things."
And Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke had described the recovery as "frustratingly slow" in congressional testimony Thursday.
Nevertheless, stocks surged on the news, with the Dow Jones industrial average rising 156 points to 12,862, its highest since the spring of 2008.
The broad-based gains in new jobs reflected robust increases in manufacturing as well as solid additions in professional and business services, such as accounting and engineering, and in the leisure and healthcare industries.
The unemployment rate was down from 8.5% in December and 9.1% in August.
The news was welcomed by the Obama administration.
Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis insisted that the improvement wasn't a one-month aberration but a trend that had been building for some time. Like others in the administration, Solis used the occasion to make a case for extending the payroll tax cuts and emergency jobless benefits beyond their scheduled expiration at the end of this month.
There were 12.8 million unemployed workers in January, with 43% of them jobless for more than six months. That's an unusually high percentage that raises serious questions about their employability because skills tend to erode over time.
Analysts said the economy needs to create at least 100,000 net new jobs a month just to keep pace with the growth in the workforce population. The nation lost, on average, about 360,000 jobs a month in 2008 and 2009.
Officially, the recession ended and the economy began recovering in June 2009, but it wasn't until March 2010 that the nation began adding jobs. With January's increase, U.S. payrolls stand at about 5.6 million below what they were at the start of 2008.
But job growth has been picking up slowly since last summer. And Friday's report showed that there was stronger hiring at the end of last year than previously thought.
Officials said employers added 157,000 jobs in November, compared to the 100,000 initially estimated. Job growth in December was revised slightly higher to 203,000 and was more broad-based than was previously indicated as government statisticians, using more complete records, erased the unusually big gains in messenger jobs and added payrolls in other categories.
The breadth of job gains was also encouraging. Manufacturing, a generally high-paying industry, added a hefty 50,000 jobs in January after increasing payrolls by 32,000 in the previous month. Car factories and makers of machinery, fabricated metals and wood products all bulked up.
The strong hiring at factories reflected the revival in U.S. auto manufacturing, which has become more competitive and has benefited more recently from an increase in car sales.
Even so, manufacturing isn't expected to maintain hiring at anything like last month's pace. For all of 2011, manufacturing added an average of 20,000 jobs a month.
The nation's service sector has been slower to increase hiring, but last month marked some notable gains.
Professional and technical businesses — a broad category that includes accountants, lawyers, computer engineers and consultants — added more than 30,000 positions. That sector of nearly eight 8 million workers has recovered all the jobs lost during the recession.
Hotels and restaurants, which employ about 11.6 million people, also returned to their pre-recession high in employment last month as they increased their head counts by 29,000.
But it's unclear whether such growth can be sustained. Analysts said the warm weather probably boosted staffing in January, as it did for the construction industry, where payrolls were up 21,000 last month in addition to 31,000 in December — the biggest back-to-back increase for construction since 2007.
Among other services, healthcare employment continued to expand, adding 31,000 jobs in January. Except for one month in 2003, the healthcare sector has increased jobs in every month over the last decade. The temporary-help industry also grew last month.
The information services industry, however, lost 13,000 jobs, mostly at motion picture and sound recording firms. Banks and other financial services also shed a small number of positions. And government continued to reduce staffing, though with overall cuts of 14,000, the reduction was less than in previous months.
Office jobs such as accounting and bookkeeping are growing because companies are doing well and they need business services, said Patrick O'Keefe, economic research director at J.H. Cohn, an accounting and advisory firm.
But he said that's not the case with consumers, many of whom remain heavily indebted and have seen their incomes and wealth hurt by weak pay increases and the depressed housing market.
Businesses won't aggressively beef up hiring unless they are confident that they will see stronger demand, he said. And even then, many companies don't have to hire as many people because they can use temporary workers or add hours for the 8.2 million part-time employees who want full-time hours.
"Employers have a need for labor, but they're tentative in their long-term commitment," he said. "They want a date but don't want to get married."