WASHINGTON (AP) _ U.S. employers added almost a quarter million workers in May, extending a nine-month hiring spree and accommodating enough new jobseekers to hold the unemployment rate steady at 5.6 percent.
Payrolls swelled by almost 1 million in the last three months alone, the Labor Department said Friday. Employment figures for March and April were revised up to reflect the addition of 353,000 and 346,000 jobs respectively.
But because tens of thousands of jobless are renewing their search for work in the wake of an improving labor market, the overall, seasonally adjusted civilian unemployment rate did not improve from April's 5.6 percent figure.
Nevertheless, the snapshot of America's employment situation in May met the expectations of most private analysts and fueled anticipation of an increase in interest rates when the Federal Reserve meets at the end of this month. The Fed's main interest rate has been at a 46-year low of 1 percent, but analysts expect that to end with the jobs market steadily gaining steam.
Hiring last month was widespread, with businesses adding an overall 248,000 new jobs across the economy. Industries that posted the biggest gains included construction, health care, professional and business services and hotels and restaurants.
``What is really key is that every major sector had improvements,'' said John Silvia, chief economist for Wachovia Securities. ``That suggests these gains are sustainable.''
The struggling manufacturing sector also is reawakening, adding 32,000 new jobs last month. It was the fourth straight month of payroll increases after almost three years of continuous losses.
The payroll survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, reflecting the addition of those 248,000 new jobs to business payrolls, is separate from a survey of U.S. households. It is that survey which determines the unemployment rate.
Friday's report was good news for President Bush, who has been counting on continued employment growth to boost his re-election prospects. The economy was expected to be a major drag on his campaign, but that may prove otherwise.
Bush still is on track to be the first president since the Great Depression to have lost jobs during his watch _ but those losses are shrinking. His administration was widely criticized for an overly optimistic forecast that 2.6 million new jobs would be created this year. But economists now say the chugging economy could approach that mark.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan, in Rome with Bush, welcomed the May jobs report. ``It's more continued evidence that the president's economic policies are working and that Americans are going back to work.''
``We're particularly encouraged to see that almost a million jobs have been created in the last three months alone, and that some 1.4 million jobs have been created since August,'' she said.
``What a difference a year makes,'' said Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, noting the big payroll gains in the past three months. ``A wakeup call has been sent that the United States economy is back.''
``Today's employment report demonstrates beyond a doubt, the broad-based strength and continuing momentum of the U.S. economy,'' said Treasury Secretary John Snow, who credited the president's tax cuts for strengthening the economy and spurring job growth.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said, ``The president's economic policies are improving the lives of millions of Americans.''
Still, the economy is far from the booming 1990s. Last month, 8.2 million people remained unemployed. While the overall jobless rate stayed at 5.6 percent, it was much higher among blacks, at 9.9 percent and Hispanics, at 7 percent.
Allison Dobson, spokeswoman for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, said, ``Any step forward in the job market is good news for workers but America is still in the worst job recovery since the Great Depression, with 1.9 million private-sector jobs lost in the Bush presidency.''
The report ``is welcome news for American workers who are enduring the most prolonged jobs slump since the 1930s,'' said Rep. Pete Stark of California, the top Democrat on Congress' Joint Economic Committee. ``But we still have a jobs deficit, and most of the economic growth we have seen has fattened businesses' balance sheets, not workers' paychecks.''
The average duration of unemployment rose to 20 weeks last month, up from 19.7 weeks in April. Almost 22 percent of all jobless workers have been without work for 27 weeks or more.
Construction employment rose by 32,000 in May, with 91,000 new jobs added since January. In services, professional and business services added 64,000 new jobs, fueled by hiring increases in temporary employment firms. Hiring at such firms has grown by 14 percent since April 2003.
Hotels and restaurants added 33,000 jobs over the month, and financial services boosted payrolls by 15,000.
But some industries lost jobs, including telecommunications, which shed 5,000 positions last month. Also, there were fewer government jobs last month, as employment in that sector decreased by 27,000.