U.S. employment grew solidly for a third straight month in February, a sign the economic recovery was broadening and in less need of further monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve.
Employers added 227,000 jobs to their payrolls last month, the Labor Department said on Friday, while the unemployment rate held at a three-year low of 8.3 percent - even as more people returned to the labor force.
Economists polled by Reuters expected payrolls to increase 210,000 last month and the jobless rate to be unchanged.
It marked the first time since early 2011 that payrolls have grown by more than 200,000 for three months in a row - bolstering President Barack Obama's chances for re-election.
I think we'll begin to ... debate about the Fed exiting its ultra-accommodative policy stance sooner than expected, said Omer Esiner, chief market analyst at Commonwealth Foreign Exchange in Washington, D.C.
U.S. stock index futures turned higher on the report, while prices for Treasury debt held steady at lower levels. The dollar rose against the euro and the yen.
The economy created 61,000 more jobs in December and January than previously thought. Nonfarm employment growth has averaged 245,000 a month over the last three months.
Manufacturing, which in January recorded the largest gain in a year, had another sturdy performance in February and there were also strong demand for temporary help.
Although the job market is gaining some muscle, the pace of improvement remains too slow to do much to absorb the 23.5 million Americans who are either out of work or underemployed.
Fed Chairman Bernanke last week described the labor market as far from normal and said continued improvement would require stronger demand for U.S. goods and services.
Still, he suggested the outlook would have to deteriorate for the U.S. central bank to launch another round of bond buying to drive interest rates lower. Officials said in January they expected growth this year to be no higher than 2.7 percent.
The jobs report, which sets the tone for financial markets worldwide, added to the list of data highlighting the U.S. economy's underlying strength.
In another sign of firming demand in the economy, the U.S. trade deficit widened 4 percent on high oil prices and record imports, a Commerce Department report showed on Friday.
The data also provided a hopeful sign for the global recovery at a time that growth is slowing in China and the euro zone appears to be sliding into recession. The jobless rate in the 17-nation euro zone area rose to 10.7 percent in January, the highest since the euro started circulating in 2000.
NUMBERS GOOD FOR OBAMA
In contrast, the U.S. unemployment rate has dropped 0.8 percentage point since August, providing some relief to Obama, who faces an election battle in which the economy has been center stage.
Economists predict the jobless rate could fall below 8 percent by November, even if the recent firming in the jobs market lures Americans who have given up the search for work back into the labor force.
The labor force participation rate - the percentage of working-age Americans either with a job or looking for one - rose to 63.9 percent from 63.7 percent in January.
The separate survey of households that is used to measure the jobless rate showed even brisker hiring in February.
While some parts of the jobs market have benefited from unseasonably warm winter weather, economists say a genuine improvement is under way, even though they expect a slight pull back in March.
Private companies again accounted for all the job gains in February, adding 233,000 positions. Government employment fell a modest 6,000, declining for a sixth straight month.
Manufacturers hired 31,000 new workers, with all the gains concentrated in the segment that produces long-lasting goods.
Auto companies, which have stepped up production, are taking on new workers and adding shifts and overtime to meet pent-up demand after production was disrupted early last year following the tsunami and earthquake in Japan.
Factory employees worked more hours last month, helping to lift the average hourly earnings for all workers by three cents in February.
Average hourly wages increased 1.9 percent in the 12 months through February, suggesting little wage inflation even though unit labor costs grew much more strongly than initially thought in the third and fourth quarters of 2011.
The overall workweek held steady at 34.5 hours - holding at the highest level since August 2008.
Outside manufacturing, construction payrolls fell 13,000, the first decline in four months. Temporary hiring, seen as a harbinger for permanent hiring, added 45,200 jobs in February after rising 32,100 the prior month.
Although hiring has quickened, the economy faces persistent long-term unemployment. In February, about 43 percent of the 12.8 million unemployed Americans had been out of work for more than six months.
(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Neil Stempleman)