U.S. job growth increased by the most in 10 months in November as former striking workers returned to General Motors' payrolls and the healthcare industry stepped up hiring, confirming that the economy remained on a moderate expansion path despite a prolonged manufacturing slump.
The Labor Department's closely watched monthly employment report on Friday showed steady wage gains and the unemployment rate falling back to 3.5%.
The report validates the Federal Reserve's decision last month to cut interest rates for the third time this year, but signal a pause in the easing cycle that started in July when it reduced borrowing costs for the first time since 2008. U.S. central bank policymakers are expected to highlight the economy's resilience when they meet on Dec. 10-11.
Recent reports on the trade deficit, housing and orders for big-ticket goods have offered a fairly upbeat assessment of the economy, but trade tensions continue to loom over the longest expansion, now in its 11th year.
Nonfarm payrolls increased by 266,000 jobs last month, with manufacturing recouping all the 43,000 positions lost in October, the government's survey of establishments showed.
Employment growth was also boosted by a gain of 60,200 healthcare workers. That lifted job growth well above its monthly average of 180,000 this year. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls rising by 180,000 jobs in November.
The economy created 41,000 more jobs in September and October than previously estimated. The 40-day strike by about 46,000 workers at GM plants in Michigan and Kentucky restricted employment gains to 156,000 jobs in October.
Manufacturing activity contracted for a fourth straight month in November. The factory malaise has been blamed on the Trump administration's 17-month trade war with China, which has bruised business confidence and undercut capital expenditure.
Though Washington and Beijing are working on a "phase one" trade deal, the United States has ratcheted up tensions with other trade partners including Brazil, Argentina and France. President Donald Trump said on Thursday the United States was having meetings and discussions with China "that are going well."
Economic growth estimates for the fourth quarter are converging around a 1.8% annualized rate. The economy grew at a 2.1% pace in the third quarter. Economists estimate the speed at which the economy can grow over a long period without igniting inflation at between 1.7% and 2%.
The surge in November payrolls defied an Institute for Supply Management survey showing a measure of manufacturing employment contracted in November for the fourth straight month. It also confounded the ADP National Employment report showing a sharp deceleration in private payrolls growth last month and consumers' perceptions of the labor market were less upbeat.
But cooler-than-normal temperatures in November curbed hiring at construction sites and mines.
Though the labor market remains resilient despite the business investment downturn, hiring has slowed from last year's average monthly gain of 223,000 because of ebbing demand and a shortage of workers. The government has said it could cut job growth for the 12 months through March 2019 by at least 500,000 jobs when it publishes its annual revision next February.
Still job creation is well over the roughly 100,000 jobs per month needed to keep up with growth in the working-age population. The unemployment rate fell one-tenth of a percentage point last month from 3.6% percent in October as people left the labor force.
The smaller household survey from which the unemployment rate is derived also showed a modest job gain last month.
A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, fell to 6.9% last month from 7.0% in October.
The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, dipped to 63.2% from more than a six-year high of 63.3% in October.
The tight labor market is generating steady wage gains. Average hourly earnings rose seven cents, or 0.2%, after increasing 0.4% in October. Wages rose 3.1% in November from 3.2% in October.
Manufacturing employment rebounded by 54,000 jobs last month as GM strike returnees boosted payrolls in the auto sector. Snow storms in the Midwest and cold weather restricted construction hiring to only 1,000 jobs.
Government employment increased by 12,000 jobs.