WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy added 321,000 jobs last month, according to government data released Friday morning, in what may be the most assertive sign to date that the labor market is returning to prerecession health.
November's numbers cap the best three-month period of labor market expansion since the financial crisis and keep the country on track for a year of job growth unseen since the late 1990s.
The unemployment rate kept steady at 5.8 percent, its lowest mark since July 2008, according to the report from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Some economists said that November's data — across-the-board job creation, coupled with a slight uptick in wages — has put the American economy in its best position in years. The country has also been buoyed by plummeting global oil prices, which translate to a de facto raise for American consumers, who are now spending far less at the pump.
"The labor market is healing faster than almost any analysts expected just a few months ago," Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West, said Friday.
So far this year, the United States has added some 2.65 million jobs — an average of about 241,000 a month. November marked the best single month for job growth since January 2012 and well exceeded the projection of economists surveyed by Bloomberg, who predicted that the economy would add about 223,000 jobs for the month. For 10 straight months now, the economy has added at least 200,000 jobs. That hasn't happened since 1994.
Separately, job growth totals for September and October were both revised upward, accounting together for an additional 44,000 jobs.
President Barack Obama touted the numbers Friday.
"Now it's been a long road to recovery from the worst economic crisis in generations, and we still have a lot more work to do to make sure that hard-working Americans' wages are growing faster," he said. "But the United States continues to outpace most of the world. Over the last four years we've put more people back to work than Europe, Japan and all other industrialized, advanced countries combined."
The increasingly muscular recovery could nudge forward the timetable for the Federal Reserve to consider raising interest rates. Most analysts expect that move to come in mid 2015.
U.S. workers were clobbered by job losses in 2009 and 2010, then pinned down by a series of false starts. But the latest data shows signs that the recovery is translating into meaningful improvements for average workers. Last month, the number of long-term unemployed ticked down. So, too, did the number of workers holding part-time jobs because they can't find full-time positions. The average American work week rose by one-tenth of an hour, and factory workers are now getting slightly more overtime.
Stagnant wages have long been the fly in the recovery's ointment. But November provided reason for cautious hope: Average private hourly wages rose to $24.66, up 0.37 percent from the previous month. That represents the sharpest spike in more than a year. Still, some economists cautioned that month-to-month changes can be fickle. Take the longer view, and the picture is more subdued: Adjusted for inflation, wage growth still remains essentially flat since the recession.
"There is more work to be done to further boost wage growth and address longer-standing challenges around both the quality of jobs and the growth of wages," Jason Furman, chairman of the White House's Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement Friday.
Furman noted that "many sectors" saw particularly strong job growth for the month. Retail, one of the best-performing industries post-recession, added about 50,000 jobs. Health care and education added about 38,000. Beyond that, some of the best numbers came in higher-performing fields. The business and professional services sector — accountants, engineers, administrators — added 86,000 jobs.
Traditional blue-collar manufacturing and construction jobs, hard-hit by the recession, are also showing signs of a comeback. This year, the United States has added about 15,000 manufacturing jobs per month, more than double the pace from 2013. Construction has added about 21,000 per month this year, compared with 13,000 per month in 2013.
"When I saw this (jobs) report, I literally gasped," said James Marple, a senior economist at TD Bank. "Over the last couple of months, I would say the American economy is reaching a real sweet spot. It's exactly what we've been looking for and what we've been missing."
In one sign of labor market confidence, workers have grown more likely to quit their jobs, meaning they've either received new employment offers or feel confident they will. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the "quit rate," as it is known, now stands at 2.2 percent among private workers. From July 2008 to July 2014 the rate never surpassed 2 percent.