The U.S. economy created jobs at a faster pace in February, adding 236,000 positions, the Labor Department reported Friday.
The unemployment rate was 7.7 percent, the lowest since December 2008, compared with 7.9 percent in January. Economists had been expecting the economy to add 165,000 jobs in February, with no movement in the rate. After peaking at 10 percent in October 2009, the unemployment rate fell steadily for three years but has been stuck at just below 8 percent since last September.
The latest unemployment report comes amid concerns that federal budget cuts set in motion by a congressional impasse could increase the ranks of the jobless in the months ahead.
Those cuts went into effect March 1, so they are not reflected in the data for February. But pressure on government payrolls was evident, with the public sector losing 10,000 jobs last month. Private employers added 246,000 positions.
The pace of hiring represents an acceleration from the previous four months, when the economy added jobs at a monthly rate of 190,000.
While that represents an improvement over the rate of job creation last summer, it is still well below the level necessary to bring down the unemployment rate substantially or reduce the ranks of the long-term jobless.
Dan Haney has worked occasionally since he was laid off from his job as a customer service representative two years ago, but lately the hunt for work has proved fruitless.
“At this point, I have to take what comes down the pike," said Haney, who is 54 and lives in Philadelphia. “I’m on the computer every day looking for jobs."
A high school graduate, Haney has some computer training but lacks a college degree, which has made finding a job all the more difficult.
“Some of these entry-level jobs say college is preferred," Haney said. “Why do you need a college degree to answer a phone?"