U.S. job growth surged in October as builders, temporary agencies and other employers boosted their payrolls, in part to repair widespread hurricane damage in the Southeast, the government reported yesterday.
Employers added 337,000 non-farm payroll jobs last month, the biggest jump since March, according to the Labor Department, which also increased by 113,000 its estimates of the totals for August and September.
The unemployment rate rose slightly, to 5.5 percent last month from 5.4 percent in September, because the number of people looking for work rose faster than the number of jobs.
Even with some gains attributed to the post-hurricane reconstruction efforts, economists said the report showed job growth was spread broadly across many industries. The labor market's strength surprised many analysts who had expected businesses to put hiring plans on hold because of uncertainty over oil prices, which rose above $55 a barrel in October.
The jobs report "tells us the economy did fairly well in October . . . despite the run-up in energy prices," said Stuart G. Hoffman, chief economist for PNC Financial Services Group Inc. Moreover, he said, the growth in employment and wages "gives consumers some spending power to absorb the higher cost of energy and still have a pretty good holiday period."
However, some analysts cautioned that the pace of hiring is likely to slow after the hurricane effects fade.
"While we are encouraged by this latest spurt, we seriously question its sustainability," said Richard A. Yamarone, director of economic research at Argus Research Co. "Businesses are making do with their existing workforces and really don't need the added expense of labor, especially amid soaring energy and raw-materials prices. Many businesses have decided that the skyrocketing cost of health care and medical benefits are simply too much to handle and have decided to eliminate positions."
Stocks rallied in response to the report on expectations of solid economic growth.
The figures also cemented financial market expectations that the Federal Reserve will raise a key short-term interest rate at its policymaking meeting Wednesday to keep inflation under control.
The Labor Department figures came out after a presidential campaign in which jobs ranked among the top issues. President Bush won despite the fact, cited relentlessly by his opponent's campaign, that he was the first president since Herbert Hoover to face the voters on Election Day with fewer jobs on the nation's payrolls than when he took office.
Employers have added jobs for 14 months in a row, for a combined total of 2.2 million since August last year. But by the end of last month, the nation had 371,000 fewer payroll jobs than when Bush was inaugurated in January 2001. If the recent average pace of job growth continues through the end of the year, that deficit would be erased by his second inauguration, in January.
The employment figures gave encouragement to many economists who had worried recently that rising energy prices would sharply depress job growth and consumer spending.
"Clearly, uncertainties are diminishing and we are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel," said Sung Won Sohn, chief economic officer of Wells Fargo Bank, referring to oil prices and the fears of terrorism that had hung over the country in the months preceding the presidential election. Many economists had blamed such uncertainties for the sluggish job growth of the summer, which appeared to reflect continued business cautiousness despite healthy profits and cash flow.
The employment report shows the economy "is doing a little better than we thought," said James E. Glassman, senior economist at J.P. Morgan Securities Inc.
Since the hurricanes probably forced down the September employment figures somewhat, economists looked to the average gains over the past three months for a sense of the underlying trend. Employers added an average of 225,000 payroll jobs a month from August through October, a pace well above the roughly 150,000 monthly gain that many economists estimate is needed to keep up with the growth of the labor force.
One of the clearest signs of the hurricanes' effects was the 71,000 construction jobs added in October -- more than one of every five new jobs -- after adjusting for seasonal variation. Many of those were added in the Southeastern states most affected by the storms.
Temporary staffing firms added 48,000 jobs, many of them to help with the post-hurricane work.
"We're seeing a pickup in jobs due to reconstruction," said Stacey Burke, spokeswoman for Labor Ready Inc., a temporary staffing firm for laborers. "Essentially anyone looking for work who is qualified could find it in [Florida] right now."
Professional- and business-services firms, schools, health care providers, retailers and employers in the leisure and hospitality industries all added jobs last month.
One weak spot was manufacturing, which shed 5,000 jobs in October, following a drop of 14,000 in September, the Labor Department report showed. The length of the average manufacturing workweek and the average weekly amount of manufacturing overtime both slipped slightly.
The unemployment rate for blacks rose to 10.7 percent last month from 10.3 percent the prior month. The rate for Hispanics and Latinos fell to 6.7 percent from 7.1 percent. White joblessness held steady at 4.7 percent.
Analysts and traders assume the Fed will lift the funds rate at its policymaking meeting Wednesday to 2 percent from 1.75 percent. That would mark the fourth consecutive quarter-percentage-point increase in the rate since June, when it was at an extremely low 1 percent. At 2 percent, the rate would still spur growth, but with less danger of fueling future inflation.
Fed officials generally believe the economic expansion is continuing on track after slowing suddenly in the early summer. But some policymakers also have suggested they might pause after Wednesday and slow the pace of subsequent rate increases if the economy loses steam.
The strong October jobs report raised the odds of another rate increase in December, several economists said.
"The Fed will keep moving in small steps," Glassman said. "The Fed's view -- that the worst is over and the economy is regaining traction -- is probably the right idea."