U.S. employers stepped up hiring in February despite a blast of harsh winter weather, renewing hopes that the economy could accelerate this year.

As a result of these temporary factors, growth in the first quarter is expected to slow to an annual rate below 2 percent. The economy grew at a 2.4 percent rate in the final quarter of 2013.

Economists welcomed the rise in the unemployment rate as a sign of labor market strength, since it was driven by Americans taking up the hunt for work.

“Evidently, the potential employees think the economy is improving and there are more jobs to be had,” said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University Channel Islands in Camarillo, Calif.

A measure of underemployment that includes people who want a job but who have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time jobs dropped to 12.6 percent, its lowest level since November 2008.

Despite the improvement, the labor market is still far from a full recovery. The percentage of working-age Americans with a job, a broad gauge of labor market health, was steady at 58.8 percent last month. It has not risen much since the recession ended nearly five years ago.

Job gains last month were fairly broad-based, with private sector payrolls rising 162,000 and government adding 13,000 jobs. Manufacturing saw a seventh straight month of gains in employment, matching the 6,000 jobs gained in January.

Construction payrolls, which surprised in January by logging hefty gains, increased by 15,000 last month. There were, however, declines in retail, information and transportation and warehousing employment.

Average hourly earnings rose nine cents in February.

“This gain, along with a rise in jobs, supports our case for better real incomes in 2014 and, thereby, a better outlook for consumer spending,” said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.


US Change in Nonfarm Payrolls Chart

US Change in Nonfarm Payrolls data by YCharts