US nonfarm payrolls post largest gain in one-and-a-half years

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. job growth surged in February, recording its biggest increase in more than 1-1/2 years, but a slowdown in wage gains pointed to a gradual increase in inflation this year.

Nonfarm payrolls jumped by 313,000 jobs last month, boosted by the largest gain in construction jobs since 2007, the Labor Department said on Friday. The increase in payrolls last month was the biggest since July 2016 and was well above the roughly 100,000 jobs per month the economy needs to create to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

Average hourly earnings edged up four cents, or 0.1 percent, to $26.75 in February, a slowdown from the 0.3 percent rise in January. That lowered the year-on-year increase in average hourly earnings to 2.6 percent from 2.8 percent in January.

The unemployment rate was unchanged at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent in February as more people entered the labor force in a sign of confidence in the jobs market. The average workweek rebounded to 34.5 hours after declining to 34.4 hours in January.

RELATED: 10 jobs where pay is rising the fastest

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10 jobs where pay is rising the fastest
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10 jobs where pay is rising the fastest

Truck driver

Growth year over year: 3.4%

Median annual pay December 2017: $53,043

Technical support

Growth year over year: 3.5%

Median annual pay December 2017: $45,526

Bank teller

Growth year over year: 3.5%

Median annual pay December 2017: $28,792

Cashier

Growth year over year: 3.6%

Median annual pay December 2017: $27,692

Emergency medical technician

Growth year over year: 3.8%

Median annual pay December 2017: $35,259

Design engineer

Growth year over year: 4%

Median annual pay December 2017: $72,514

Warehouse associate

Growth year over year: 4.1%

Median annual pay December 2017: $42,361

Paralegal

Growth year over year: 4.8%

Median annual pay December 2017: $48,900

Restaurant cook

Growth year over year: 4.8%

Median annual pay December 2017: $28,563

Medical technologist

Growth year over year: 6.2%

Median annual pay December 2017: $55,670

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With Federal Reserve officials considering the labor market to be near or a little beyond full employment, the moderation in wage growth last month will probably do little to change expectations that the U.S. central bank will raise interest rates at its March 20-21 policy meeting.

Slow wage growth, however, could temper expectations that the Fed will change its rate forecast to four hikes this year from three. There is optimism that tightening labor market conditions will spur faster wage growth this year and pull inflation toward the Fed's 2 percent target.

Speculation that the central bank would upgrade its interest rate projections was stoked by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell when he told lawmakers last week that "my personal outlook for the economy has strengthened since December."

While Powell said there was no evidence of the economy overheating, he added "the thing we don't want to have happen is to get behind the curve."

BROAD EMPLOYMENT GAINS

Some companies like Starbucks Corp SBUX.O and FedEx Corp FDX.N have said they would use some of their windfall from a $1.5 trillion income tax cut package to boost workers' salaries. Walmart WMT.N announced an increase in entry-level wages for hourly employees at its U.S. stores effective in February.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls rising by 200,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate falling to 4.0 percent. Average hourly earnings had been expected to increase 0.2 percent in February.

The employment report suggested the economy remained strong despite weak consumer spending, home sales, industrial production and a wider trade deficit in January that prompted economists to lower their growth estimates for the first quarter. Gross domestic product estimates for the January-March quarter are around a 2 percent annualized rate. The economy grew at a 2.5 percent pace in the fourth quarter.

Economists expect the unemployment rate to fall to 3.5 percent this year. The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, rose to 63.0 percent in February from 62.7 percent in January.

Employment gains were broad in February. Construction employment rose by 61,000 jobs, the most since March 2007. Hiring at construction sites was likely boosted by unseasonably mild temperatures in February.

Manufacturing payrolls increased by 31,000 jobs. The sector is being supported by strong domestic and international demand as well as by a weaker dollar. Retail payrolls jumped by 50,300 and the government added 26,000 jobs.

There were also increases in payrolls for professional and business services, leisure and hospitality as well as healthcare and social assistance.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Paul Simao)

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