WASHINGTON -- The pace of job growth has begun gathering steam as the last missing piece in the recovery -- the housing market -- comes back to life nationwide and employers start to look past government budget battles and add to their thinned ranks.
The Labor Department said the economy generated 236,000 net jobs in February, much more than analysts had expected.
The improvement was enough to help drive the nation's unemployment rate down to 7.7 percent, the lowest point in President Barack Obama's tenure. Employees put in more hours of work last month, and their average hourly earnings edged higher.
Although the employment situation remains far from robust -- people continued to drop out of the labor force, and millions of workers are stuck in part-time jobs -- Friday's report adds to evidence that the recovery is picking up momentum. Job growth has averaged 205,000 monthly since October, up from 152,000 a month in the third quarter last year and 108,000 last spring.
The report eased analysts' concerns about the federal government's new spending cuts, which started taking effect this month, and it lifted the spirits of investors, who pushed the Dow Jones industrial average up to a fourth straight day of record highs.
"The labor market has hit a turning point and is finally healing more rapidly," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago, though she cautioned in a research note that "we still have a long way to go."
Obama's chief economic advisor, Alan Krueger, who typically has been guarded in comments about the monthly job numbers, said the report Friday indicated a recovery that "is gaining traction."
In prior business cycles, the construction sector was among the earliest to recover and lift the broader economy and job growth. This time around, the housing bust was a prime factor in the Great Recession that wiped out trillions of dollars of household wealth and wreaked particular havoc on small businesses.
But in recent months, the housing market finally started to strengthen, with new-home building nearing 1 million units a year after falling to a low of almost half that. The widely watched Case-Shiller home-price index, which calculates price changes for 20 cities, jumped 6.8 percent in December compared with a year earlier.
"It's all adding nice chunks to the expansion," said Karl Case, co-founder of the index.