The nation's economy generated 207,000 jobs in July, the Labor Department reported today, exceeding expectations and scoring the best job growth in three months.

In addition, average hourly earnings rose by 6 cents, or 0.4%, to $16.13, the largest gain in a year.

The unemployment rate held steady at about 5 percent.

A year ago, the jobless rate was 5.5 percent.

The figures, especially the earnings numbers, are expected to bolster arguments for the Federal Reserve to continue boosting benchmark interest rates in order to contain inflationary pressure.

Most economists had expected job gains of about 180,000. May and June had produced 126,000 and 166,000 jobs respectively, the report said, revising earlier figures upward.

The gains in July came in spite of hurricane activity in the south and southeast, which often depresses job growth.

The department said there was "no discernable weather-related effects" on employment.

The heaviest gains were in service-providing industries, including retail trade, professional and technical services, financial activities, food services, and health care, the department said.

"Retail trade employment rose by 50,000 in July, following little change in June, " the report said.

The retail growth occurred in clothing stores, motor vehicle and parts dealers, building material and garden supply stores.

Management and technical consulting services, as well as architectural and engineering services, contributed to the July gain, according to the Labor Department statement.