U.S. employers added 217,000 jobs in May, a substantial gain for a fourth straight month, fueling hopes that the economy will accelerate after a grim start to the year.
The May figure was down from 282,000 in April, a figure that the government revised slightly down, the Labor Department said Friday. But monthly job growth has now averaged 234,000 for the past three months, up sharply from 150,000 in the previous three.
The unemployment rate, which is calculated from a separate survey, remained 6.3%.
The job market has reached a significant milestone: Nearly five years after the Great Recession ended, the economy has finally regained all the jobs lost in the downturn.
Still, more job growth is needed because the U.S. population has grown nearly 7% since then. Economists at the liberal Economic Policy Institute have estimated that 7 million more jobs would have been needed to keep up with population growth.
Pay growth remains below the levels typical of a healthy economy. Average wages have grown roughly 2% a year since the recession ended, well below the long-run average annual growth rate of about 3.5%.
One reason for the weak pay gains: Many of the jobs added since the recession ended in June 2009 have been in lower-paying industries. A similar pattern was evident in May: Hotels, restaurants and entertainment companies added 39,000 jobs. Retailers gained 12,500. Manufacturers added 10,000 jobs, construction firms 6,000.
Many economists predicted late last year that growth would finally accelerate in 2014 from the steady but modest pace that has persisted for the past four years. But the economy actually shrank in the first three months of this year as a blast of cold weather shut down factories and kept consumers away from shopping malls and car dealerships.
The U.S. economy contracted at a 1% annual rate in the first quarter, its first decline in three years.
So far, employers have shrugged off the winter slowdown and have continued to hire. That should help the economy rebound because more jobs mean more paychecks to spend.
Most economists expect annualized growth to reach 3% to 3.5% in the current second quarter and to top 3% for the rest of the year.
Recent economic figures suggest that growth is accelerating.
Auto sales surged 11% in May to a nine-year high. Some of that increase reflected a pent-up demand after heavy snow during the winter discouraged car buyers. But analysts predict that healthy sales will continue in coming months, bolstered by low auto-loan rates and the rollout of new car models.