WASHINGTON (AP) - Companies created 268,000 jobs in April, the most since February 2006.
The gains were widespread. Retailers, factories, financial companies, education and health care and even construction companies all added jobs.
After subtracting cuts by federal, state and local governments, the economy added 244,000 net jobs last month, the Labor Department said Friday. That marked the third straight month in which more than 200,000 jobs were created, the best three-month hiring spree in five years. Job gains in March and February were even stronger than previously reported.
The unemployment rate ticked up to 9 percent from 8.8 percent in March, the first increase since November. The government uses a separate survey to calculate the unemployment rate. The survey sometimes diverges from a separate survey used to number of jobs employers added.
The latest employment figures suggest businesses are confident in the economy despite weak growth earlier this year and soaring gas prices. Stocks rose after the employment report was released. The Dow Jones industrial average gained more than 168 points in morning trading.
Companies are finally starting to spend the nearly $2 trillion in cash that they stockpiled after the recession ended in June 2009, economists say. Businesses are gaining confidence in their sales and the economy's ability to grow, despite some obstacles.
"It is a sign of relief. Economic momentum has not been lost," said Sung won Sohn, economist at California State University. "Surprisingly, the rising energy prices have not made a significant dent in businesses' willingness to hire, indicating that their optimism on the economy has not faded."
The positive jobs report completes a strong week for President Barack Obama, who announced earlier that a team of Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Workers' paychecks edged up in April. Average hourly earnings rose to $22.95, up from $22.93 in March.
All told there were 13.7 million people unemployed in April, still almost double since before the recession began in December 2007.
Including part-time workers who would rather be working full time, plus people who have given up looking altogether, the percentage of "underemployed" people rose to 15.9 percent in April.
To calculate the unemployment rate, the government calls 60,000 households and asks people if they're working or looking for a job. This survey includes the self-employed, farm workers and domestic help - people not counted in the payroll survey.
For the payroll survey, the government seeks input from about 140,000 businesses and government agencies to determine the number of jobs added.
Most analysts agree the economy has strengthened enough to keep growing this year. And many say the factors that held back growth at the start of the year were most likely temporary. They predict growth will pick up over the rest of the year.
There have been some positive signs. Retailers reported strong April sales, helped by a late Easter. Auto companies reported brisk sales. And factories have expanded production this year at the fastest pace in a quarter-century.
Economists' prediction for a pickup in overall growth is based, however, on gasoline prices stabilizing in the months ahead and then dropping to around $3.50 a gallon or lower near the end of the year.
Gas prices had risen for 44 straight days before holding steady Friday at a national average of roughly $3.99 a gallon.
"The U.S. labor market strengthened in April, damping concerns that rising energy costs are staunching the recovery, said Sal Guatieri, an economist at BMO Capital Markets Economics.
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