US adds a strong 242,000 jobs; rate holds at low 4.9 pct.

Washington :US employers added a robust 242,000 workers in February as retailers, restaurants and health care providers drove another solid month for the resilient American job market.

The Labor Department said today that the unemployment rate held steady at 4.9 per cent.

The pickup in job gains shows that the US economy has largely weathered a broader global slowdown without suffering much blowback. Worker pay slipped last month after accelerating in January.

But more Americans who had been sitting on the sidelines began searching for jobs and found them.

Employers expect solid consumer demand in the months ahead even though the stock market has turned turbulent, oil prices have hurt energy industry jobs and a stronger dollar has reduced export sales.

Retailers added 54,900 jobs last month. Restaurants and bars added 40,200.

Hiring by construction companies, retailers and health care providers has offset layoffs at manufacturers and fossil fuel companies two sectors squeezed by the pressures of uncertainty in China, sluggishness in Europe, declining oil prices and a stronger dollar.

Job losses for the mining sector an area that includes the battered energy industry have totaled 140,400 in the past 12 months. And manufacturing has added just 12,000 jobs over that time.

Consumers have provided the foundation for much of the job market’s improvement in what’s become something of a self-sustaining cycle. More than 2.7 million workers hired over the past 12 months have bolstered spending on autos, housing and meals out.

As unemployment has dropped, more companies have begun to raise pay to attract workers, thereby fueling more hiring as people’s ability to spend, invest and save has increased.

Today’s jobs report is sure to be closely monitored by the Federal Reserve and presidential candidates as a gauge of how well the economy is extending its 6 and half year rebound from the Great Recession.

Recent reports have pointed to continued improvement. Over the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have risen 2.5 per cent. Annual pay growth has perked up after having increased at a roughly 2 per cent pace in the previous few years. The wage acceleration has fed optimism among many economists despite the difficulties worldwide.

The hiring and rising incomes have translated into more consumer spending in several key sectors. Auto sales rose 7 per cent over last February to 1.3 million vehicles, according to Autodata Corp.