Paul Davidson, USA TODAY
Employers added 236,000 jobs in February as the labor market continued to largely shrug off a recent payroll tax hike and the prospect of big federal spending cuts.
The unemployment rate fell to 7.7% from 7.9%.
The consensus forecast of economists estimated the economy added about 160,000 jobs in February.
Some were looking for stronger gains after a report Thursday showed the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits for the first time fell 7,000 to 340,000 in the latest week, and the four-week average of claims dipped to the lowest level in five years. Also, private payroll processor ADP estimated that businesses added 198,000 jobs last month.
Monthly job gains of 200,000 or more are typically needed to quickly bring down the unemployment rate. Job growth picked up last year to an average monthly pace of 181,000
Some economists say payroll additions this year could be slowed by Washington's recent failure to renew a payroll tax cut and $85 billion in across-the-board federal spending cuts that started to take effect March 1.
Still, the economy has proved resilient so far. Measures of manufacturing and service-sector activity both showed growth in February.
And the housing rebound is sparking job gains in a range of industries, from construction to furniture sales and mortgage lending. Rising home and stock prices are making consumers feel wealthier, helping offset the effects of the payroll tax increase and higher gasoline prices.