Unemployment Rate Holds Steady at 9.7%

WASHINGTON (TheStreet) — Employers shed fewer jobs than expected in February, though market observers continue looking for any signs of sustained employment growth.

Nonfarm payrolls fell by 36,000 during the month, and the nation's unemployment rate held steady at 9.7%, according to the Labor Department. According to consensus figures provided by Briefing.com, analysts believed 68,000 jobs would be lost from nonfarm payrolls in February, while the unemployment rate was expected to edge just higher to 9.8%.

The government also noted that last month's blizzardlike conditions around the country may have affected the data in some ways. Many economists lowered expectations ahead of the data because of the potential for weather distortions.

"Given the weather, people were expecting a worse, not better, number. I think, clearly, this number will be very well received. It bodes well for the market," said Michael James, managing director at Wedbush Morgan Securities, who anticipated a loss of over 100,000 jobs. "It continues a theme of continued improvement, albeit at a slow and steady pace."

"I don't think there's anything sharply positive about the numbers, but I think the data is good enough to keep the market up," added James, who also said these recovery signs foreshadow strength in retail.

The report will surely give both bulls and bears plenty of debate fodder. The volume of long-term unemployed, or those out of work for 27 weeks or more, edged just lower to 6.1 million from 6.3 million the month before.

Meanwhile, the so-called "underemployment" rate, which also includes part-timers looking for full-time work and a collection of unemployed who stopped looking all together, rose slightly to 16.8% from 16.5%.

Average hourly earnings rose by 3 cents to $22.46 during the month. The average hours worked in a week declined by a tenth to 33.8 hours, though that may echo winter weather closings.

The December payroll loss was revised to the upside, reflecting a loss of 109,000 jobs vs. 150,000. Meanwhile, January payrolls were revised to show a slightly wider loss at 26,000 jobs, rather than the 20,000 decline originally reported.

Employers in construction shed another 64,000 jobs, as 18,000 were dropped from rolls in the information industry. But a pickup in temporary hiring, which grew by nearly 48,000, helped offset those losses. Some economists see temporary job growth as a precursor of future jobs creation.

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