Employers added 311,000 jobs in February, the Labor Department reported Friday, continuing a hotter-than-expected streak that has created abundant job opportunities while frustrating the Federal Reserve in its drive to contain stubborn inflation.
The unemployment rate ticked up to 3.6 percent, still an exceptionally low level brought about by robust job creation and workers’ slow return to the labor force after the pandemic. It was 3.4 percent in January, the lowest since 1969.
Hiring has been a persistent source of dynamism in the economy even as other elements have lost their steam or yielded to higher interest rates. But there were signs in the February report that the job market’s extreme tightness might be easing.
An influx of more than 400,000 job seekers lifted the labor force participation rate, which has been slow to recover as older people retired early. The rate for those in their prime working years — ages 25 to 54 — jumped to 83.1 percent, exceeding its prepandemic level.
And wages grew 0.2 percent from January to February, a continued deceleration and the smallest increase since February 2022. That is likely to provide some comfort to Federal Reserve policymakers, who have closely watched earnings as a driver of inflation.
The employment gains were again led by industries such as leisure and hospitality, which added 105,000 jobs, but remains 2.4 percent below its level three years ago.
“Some of these sectors, especially services, are still recovering from the pandemic,” said Eugenio Alemán, chief economist at the financial services firm Raymond James. “I think that puts the thought of a recession kind of in doubt.”
Construction, which has grown steadily even as the housing market entered a deep freeze, also continued to add jobs, as did health care, retail and professional and business services.
Other sectors, however, have clearly lost momentum. The information industry, which includes many large technology companies, subtracted 25,000 jobs as layoffs hit in Silicon Valley. Goods-related industries — including manufacturing, as well as transportation and warehousing — were flat to negative as retailers have burned through their bloated inventories, reducing the need for new orders and for people to move things around.
Defying some expectations, the blockbuster January job gains were revised down only slightly, remaining — for now — at an extremely strong 504,000.
The fresh batch of data adds to a cacophonous landscape of economic indicators, some of which suggest that businesses and consumers are ramping back up after absorbing the Federal Reserve’s largest interest rate increases in 2022. Others, like the share of workers quitting their jobs, continue to sink back to earth after extraordinary surges over the past three years.
Another big data point will come on Tuesday with the Consumer Price Index reading for February. The year-over-year increase was 6.4 percent in January.
The Fed had been expected to stick to a slower course on interest rate increases, moving in increments of one-quarter of a percentage point. But Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, warned this week that if new data showed that the economy was not slowing enough to keep inflation in check, policymakers might opt for a bigger increase at their meeting on March 21-22.
“The big upshot is that it lowers the chances of a soft landing a little bit,” said Brad Hershbein, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, referring to the ability to tame inflation without bringing on a recession. “The broader pattern is still consistent with the labor market gradually cooling, but more gradually than the Fed would like.”
To date, acute labor shortages in some fields have made employers extremely reluctant to shed workers even as business has faded in some industries. That has allowed overall employment to expand even as hiring velocity — the speed at which employers add new workers — has slowed considerably.
But that forbearance may wear thin if the Fed also succeeds in slowing demand for services like restaurants and airlines, where millions of unfilled jobs have continued to propel strong wage growth and consumers have shown no sign of pulling back.