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The American job market is still a long way from healthy, but its pulse feels a lot stronger now than it did six months ago. The Labor Department says employers added 227,000 workers to their payrolls in February, a solid — if not spectacular — performance. It continues a trend that suggests a genuine recovery, not a temporary blip.
The unemployment rate held steady at 8.3 percent, even as nearly 500,000 people joined the workforce.
Improvement in the job market is a boon for President Obama as he tries to hold onto his own job in November.
"Day by day, we're creating new jobs. But we can't stop there," he said Friday. "Not until everybody who's out there pounding the pavement, sending out their resumes, has a chance to land one of those jobs."
Employers have added more than 200,000 jobs in each of the last three months. Over the last six months, private employers have added 1.3 million jobs. That's the strongest six-month period of job growth in almost six years. Alan Krueger, who chairs the president's Council of Economic Advisers, says the cumulative picture is an economy on the mend.
"We are digging our way out of the deep hole that the president inherited when he took office," he says.
Employers are putting out "help wanted" signs in many different industries. Bars and restaurants added 41,000 jobs in February. There were 61,000 more jobs in health care and social work, and 82,000 in business and professional services. About half of those were in temporary firms. Joanie Ruge of the Randstad temporary agency says business began picking up late last year.
"I can tell you that some of the hottest jobs right now are in information technology. We are also seeing a very strong demand in engineering, which is a good sign, as well as accounting and finance," she says. "That continues to pick up."
Obama has been highlighting manufacturing jobs, and Friday he visited a Rolls-Royce jet engine parts factory in Virginia. U.S. factories added 31,000 jobs in February, and more than 400,000 over the last two years.
"So the economy is getting stronger," he said, "and when I come to places like this, and I see the work that's being done, it gives me confidence there are better days ahead."
The Rolls-Royce Crosspointe plant is part of a joint effort to promote advanced manufacturing along with universities, community colleges and the government. Obama wants to duplicate that model elsewhere. He proposed a $1 billion effort to develop manufacturing institutes around the country.
"I don't want it just here at Crosspointe. I want it everywhere," he said. "To do that, we need Congress to act."
While House lawmakers approved a modest jobs bill this past week, Congress has been slow to embrace many of the president's economic proposals.
Meanwhile, Republican presidential hopefuls have tried to tag Obama as an economic failure. That task is made more difficult by the improving jobs numbers. Mitt Romney didn't specifically address the new employment report on the campaign trail Friday, but he argues the slow pace of recovery is nothing to brag about.
"First of all, talk to the 24 million Americans that are out of work or under-employed in this country," he said.
To be sure, 8.3 percent unemployment is still painfully high and a potential liability for Obama. While the recent trend is good — and the jobless rate is now as low as it's been since his first full month in office — Obama says that's not good enough.
"I did not run for this office just to get back to where we were. I ran for this office to get us where we need to be," he said.
Obama says his goal is to restore middle-class security, adding that some challenges take longer than one term to achieve.