NEW YORK (CNNMoney) - U.S. employers ramped up their hiring in February, helping the unemployment rate to fall to its lowest level since December 2008.
The U.S. economy added 236,000 jobs in February, according to a Labor Department report released Friday. That's much stronger growth than in January, when employers hired a revised 119,000 workers.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate dipped to 7.7%, as 12 million workers were counted as unemployed.
The unemployment rate fell partly because more people said they got jobs, but also because 130,000 people dropped out of the labor force.
Economists surveyed by CNNMoney had predicted 170,000 jobs were added and the unemployment rate fell to 7.8% in February. Stock futures, which were already higher before the jobs report, rose further following the release.
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Private sector employers added 246,000 jobs. The construction sector has been a particularly bright spot, with 48,000 jobs added in February and 135,000 over the past four months. Economists expect construction hiring to continue thanks to the housing recovery.
Employers have been adding jobs for three straight years, but it's happening too gradually for the labor market to return to where it was at the beginning of the Great Recession.
Overall, the U.S. economy lost 8.8 million jobs in the financial crisis, and has only gained back 5.6 million of those jobs since the labor market's height in January 2008. Meanwhile, the population has grown.
The federal government, excluding the postal service, cut 4,200 jobs. It was the fifth straight month for federal job cuts, and more are likely to follow, in the wake of automatic across-the-board spending cuts.
State and local governments cut another 10,000 jobs, mostly in education.