WASHINGTON – Hiring picked up across the economy in February, with employers adding nearly a quarter-million jobs in the biggest boost in three months. Encouraged by help-wanted signs, job seekers turned out in droves, nudging the unemployment rate higher. The overall picture emerging from the Labor Department’s report Friday suggested that businesses are in the mood to hire and may be more inclined to reward existing workers or lure new ones with fatter paychecks, economists said. Employers expanded payrolls by 243,000 jobs in February. That was better than expected and an improvement over the 170,000 in January. Construction, retail, financial services, health care and education were among the industries seeing employment gains last month. That eclipsed weakness in manufacturing, mostly reflecting job losses in the struggling automotive sector. On Wall Street, the positive employment report propelled the Dow Jones industrials higher. The index shot up 104.06 points to close at 11,076.34. “Businesses are apparently seeing strong enough growth in demand for their goods and services to look for more workers – and businesses are being forced to pay up for them because wages are rising strongly, too,” said economist Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors. “The job market is becoming more and more friendly if you are a worker or looking to become one.” Brighter job prospects sent people streaming into the labor market, however, bumping up the unemployment rate to 4.8 percent in February. While that was up slightly from a 4 year low of 4.7 percent in January, the new unemployment rate still indicated a healthy jobs climate. “You are seeing a large number of people coming out of the woodwork because there are jobs to be found. People are now looking for jobs because it is now worth looking,” said Bill Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial Services. The fresh snapshot of labor activity comes as President George W. Bush continues to cope with sagging job-approval ratings. Just 37 percent approve of his overall performance, the lowest level of his presidency, according to an AP-Ipsos poll. “American workers are defying the pessimists,” Bush declared. “Our economy is strong.” Economists said the employment report and other economic data buttress their belief that the economy has snapped out of an end-of-year funk. Analysts predict the economy is growing at a brisk pace of 4.5 percent or higher in the January-to-March quarter. That would mark an energetic rebound from the lethargic 1.6 percent growth rate logged in the final quarter of last year. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., called the payroll gain in February “welcome news” but added: “The labor market is not yet back to full strength.” He worried that some workers’ paychecks are being stretched thinner by expensive energy bills and health care costs. Employees’ average hourly earnings rose to $16.47 in February, a modest 0.3 percent increase from January. That was in line with economists’ expectations. However, compared with February of last year, average hourly earnings increased by 3.5 percent – the biggest 12-month gain since September 2001. While wage growth is good for workers, a big pickup in wages – if sustained – can stir fears about inflation among economists and at the Federal Reserve. To fend off inflation, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues are expected to boost short-term interest rates on March 28, and probably again on May 10. The March meeting will be Bernanke’s first as Fed chief. The central bank under former chairman Alan Greenspan has been tightening credit since June 2004. Wages trailed inflation for most workers last year. Economists hope that won’t be the case this year. They are predicting inflation will be more moderate this year compared with last year, when consumer prices leaped by the largest amount in five years. Skyrocketing energy prices was a major culprit for that surge in overall inflation. Economists said the wage gains boded well for consumer spending, an important shaper of economic activity. Assuming the housing market gradually slows, consumers this year aren’t expected to be the big spenders they have been. But a healthy jobs climate should keep them from snapping their purses and wallets closed. “Workers are asking for bigger pay increases and they are getting them. The pendulum has swung decidedly in favor of workers,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECasino Insider: Here’s a look at San Manuel’s new high limit rooms, Asian restaurant160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!