WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. employers added a vigorous 257,000 jobs in January, and wages jumped by the most in six years — evidence that the job market is accelerating closer to full health.
The surprisingly robust report the government issued Friday also showed that hiring was far stronger in November and December than it had previously estimated. Employers added 414,000 jobs in November — the most in 17 years. Job growth in December was revised sharply up to 329,000 from 252,000.
Average hourly wages soared 12 cents in January to $24.75, the sharpest gain since 2008. Over the past 12 months, hourly pay, which has long been stagnant, has now risen 2.2 percent. That is ahead of inflation, which rose just 0.7 percent in 2014.
The unemployment rate last month rose to 5.7 percent from 5.6 percent. But that occurred for a good reason: More than 1 million Americans — the most since January 2000 — began looking for jobs, though not all of them found work, and their numbers swelled the number of people counted as unemployed. An influx of job hunters suggests that Americans have grown more confident about their prospects.
"For the average American, it's certainly good news — 2015 is going to be the year of the American consumer," said Russell Price, senior economist at the financial services firm Ameriprise. "With job growth being strong, we're going to see a pickup in wages and salaries."
Investors immediately responded to the better-than-expected jobs figures by selling ultra-safe U.S. Treasurys, sending yields up. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 1.88 percent from 1.81 percent shortly before the jobs report was released.
Stock market index futures also edged higher in pre-market trading. Futures that track the Standard & Poor's 500 index and the Dow Jones industrial average each rose about 0.4 percent.
A sharp drop in gas prices has held down inflation and boosted Americans' spending power. Strong hiring also tends to lift pay as employers compete for fewer workers. A big question is whether last month's jump in wages can be sustained.
Job gains have now averaged 336,000 for the past three months, the best three-month pace in 17 years. Just a year ago, the three-month average was only 197,000.
The stepped-up hiring in January occurred across nearly all industries. Construction firms added 39,000 jobs and manufacturers 22,000. Retail jobs jumped by nearly 46,000. Hotels and restaurants added 37,100, health care 38,000.
The Federal Reserve is closely monitoring wages and other job market data as it considers when to begin raising the short-term interest rate it controls from a record low near zero. The Fed has kept rates at record lows for more than six years to help stimulate growth. Most economists think the central bank will start boosting rates as early as June.
Steady economic growth has encouraged companies to keep hiring. The economy expanded at a 4.8 percent annual rate during spring and summer, the fastest six-month pace in a decade, before slowing to a still-decent 2.6 percent pace in the final three months of 2014.
There are now 3.2 million more Americans earning paychecks than there were 12 months ago. That tends to boost consumer spending, which drives about 70 percent of economic growth.
More hiring, along with sharply lower gasoline prices, has boosted Americans' confidence and spending power. Consumer confidence jumped in January to its highest level in a decade, according to a survey by the University of Michigan. And Americans increased their spending during the final three months of last year at the fastest pace in nearly nine years.
A more confident, free-spending consumer could lend a spark that's been missing for most of the 5½-year-old economic recovery. Americans have been largely holding the line on spending and trying to shrink their debt loads. Signs that they are poised to spend more have boosted optimism that the economy will expand more than 3 percent this year for the first time in a decade.
One sector that has benefited from consumers' increased willingness to spend has been the auto industry. Auto sales jumped 14 percent in January from the previous year, according to Autodata Corp. Last month was the best January for sales in nine years.
Purchases of autos, appliances and furniture are helping keep factories busy even as weak economies in Asia and Europe and a stronger dollar have dampened demand for U.S. manufactured goods.