The nation's economy added a forecast-crushing 255,000 jobs in July, the Labor Department said Friday in a report that bolsters Democrat Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and may set the stage for the Federal Reserve to boost interest rates this fall.
The job growth followed June's gain of 292,000 positions, which was revised upward today from an initial estimate of 287,000 last month. Average hourly compensation, the statistic that has helped fuel debates about whether the expansion is delivering wage gains to average workers, rose 0.3 percentage points, meaning wages are now up 2.6% for the past year, beating inflation by about a point and a half. Economists had expected the unemployment rate to dip by one-tenth of a percentage point to 4.8%, according to the median forecast in a survey by The Wall Street Journal.
The unemployment rate held steady at 4.9% for all workers, as the percentage of adult Americans participating in the work force edged higher in an apparent response to plentiful jobs. Economists had expected it to dip to 4.8%.
"Impressive report," Moody's Analytics economist Ryan Sweet said in an e-mail. "The acceleration in wage growth is further evidence that the economy is moving closer to full employment. Policy implications are minor. This will keep a September [rate hike by the Federal Reserve] alive but the inflation data needs to cooperate for the Fed to follow through."
The numbers were mostly positive for industries involved in speculation earlier this year that the U.S. might fall back into recession. Manufacturers like Dow Jones Industrial Average members Caterpillar (CAT - Get Report) and General Electric (GE - Get Report) added 9,000 workers.
Construction companies added 14,000, pointing to gradually improving prospects for home builders like D.R. Horton (DHI - Get Report) and PulteGroup (PHM - Get Report) and construction businesses like Fluor (FLR - Get Report) and KBR (KBR - Get Report) . Mining companies cut 6,000 positions as rig counts in the oil patch searched for a bottom and the price of crude fell, reaching $41.70 a barrel on Thursday after cracking the $52 mark in June.
Health care employers added 43,200 workers, after HCA (HCA - Get Report) beat second-quarter forecasts and raised its 2016 guidance. Business and professional services firms added 70,000, and leisure and hospitality companies like Marriott International (MAR - Get Report) and McDonalds (MCD - Get Report) added 45,000. Retailers like Wal-Mart Stores (WMT - Get Report) added 14,700.
The one exaggeration in the report is its estimate that government employment grew by 38,000 after years of being held down by budget-cutting, Regions Financial chief economist Richard Moody said.
"Headline job growth is overstated, thanks to the reported 38,000 increase in government payrolls," Moody said in an e-mail. "That said, the 217,000 increase in private sector payrolls is solid. It's encouraging to see the increase in goods-producing industries. This contributed to the increase in weekly hours which, along with the solid gain in hourly earnings, will have a huge impact on growth in aggregate earnings."
The report bolsters the picture of an economy that is growing slowly, but rapidly enough to absorb the relatively few new workers being generated by an aging population, said Dean Maki, chief economist at Point72 Asset Management, the private office for investor Steven A. Cohen.
Low inflation is helping wage gains boost purchasing power at least as fast as the larger wage gains that were arriving late in the last expansion, which ended in 2007, Maki said.
The Consumer Price Index rose by less than 1% last year, and by exactly 1% for the 12 months ending in June, according to the Labor Department. That makes the wage gains reported in the average hourly earnings number, which are smaller than the increases in other income statistics, comparable to peak gains of about 4% posted in the last two years before the 2008 financial crisis.
Higher wages, as well as falling gasoline prices and modest home-price appreciation make for better election conditions for incumbent political parties, said Dan White, a Moody's Analytics economist who maintains the firm's election forecasting model. The model predicts that Clinton will beat GOP nominee Donald Trump, capturing 326 electoral votes, 56 more than needed to win the White House.
A shift in Fed policy is likely after the election, but a gain of more than 200,000 jobs does raise prospects for a September hike if August's report is also strong, Maki said.
"September odds begin to creep higher on a report like that," he said.