WASHINGTON - U.S. hiring improved in February from the previous two months despite a blast of wintry weather, likely renewing hopes that growth will accelerate this year.
The Labor Department said Friday that employers added 175,000 jobs last month, up from just 129,000 in January, which was revised up from 113,000. December's gain was also revised higher.
The unemployment rate rose to 6.7 percent from a five-year low 6.6 percent. More Americans started looking for work but didn't find jobs. That's still an encouraging sign because more job hunters suggest that people were more optimistic about their prospects.
The figures were a welcome surprise after recent economic reports showed that harsh weather had closed factories, lowered auto sales, and caused existing-home sales to plummet.
"Over the past three months, payrolls growth has averaged 130,000, which is pretty respectable given the widespread weather disruptions," tweeted University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers.
The low temperatures and snow storms that hit the eastern half of the country in February might still have held back hiring. The number of Americans who said weather forced them to work part time rather than full time reached the highest level for February in the 36 years that the government has tracked the figure. The average work week fell.
Some recent reports hint that the economy will accelerate as the weather warms. The number of people who applied for unemployment benefits fell last week and is at about the same level as before the Great Recession.
Applications essentially reflect layoffs. The decline suggests that companies are confident about future growth, because layoffs would rise if employers expected business to weaken. Instead, businesses advertised more jobs online last month, according to the Conference Board. Online job ads rose 268,100 in February to 5.19 million.
Still, other factors are weighing on the economy. Auto makers and other manufacturers build up big stockpiles of goods in the second half of last year. That means they are likely producing fewer goods this year and is probably one reason factory orders are down.
Most economists forecast the economy will grow at a 2 percent annual pace or less in the first three months of the year, down from a 2.4 percent pace in the final three months of 2013. But they expect growth to accelerate in the spring and summer to roughly a 3 percent pace.