WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. employers added a vigorous 257,000 jobs in January, and wages jumped by the most in six years -- evidence that the U.S. job market is accelerating closer to full health.
The surprisingly robust report the Labor Department issued Friday also showed that hiring was far stronger in November and December than previously thought. Employers added 414,000 jobs in November -- the most in 17 years. Job growth in December was also revised sharply higher, to 329,000, from 252,000.
Average hourly wages soared 12 cents in December to $24.75, the biggest gain since September 2008. In the past year, hourly pay has increased 2.2 percent. That is ahead of inflation, which rose just 0.7 percent in 2014.
The unemployment rate in January rose to 5.7 percent from 5.6 percent. But that occurred for a good reason: More Americans began looking for jobs, though not all of them found work. Their job hunting suggests that they are more confident about their prospects.
"For the average American, it's certainly good news -- 2015 is going to be the year of the American consumer," said Russell Price, senior economist at the financial services firm Ameriprise. "With job growth being strong, we're going to see a pickup in wages and salaries."
A sharp drop in gas prices has held down inflation and boosted Americans' spending power. Strong hiring also tends to lift wages as employers compete for fewer workers.
Job gains have now averaged 336,000 a month for the past three months, the best three-month pace in 17 years. Just a year ago, the three-month average was only 197,000.
The stepped-up hiring in January occurred across nearly all industries. Construction firms added 39,000 jobs and manufacturers 22,000. Retail jobs jumped by nearly 46,000. Hotels and restaurants added 37,100, health care 38,000.
The Federal Reserve is closely monitoring wages and other job market data as it considers when to begin raising the short-term interest rate it controls from a record low near zero. The Fed has kept rates at record lows for more than six years to help stimulate growth. Most economists think the central bank will start boosting rates as early as June.
Steady economic growth has encouraged companies to keep hiring. The economy expanded at a 4.8 percent annual rate during spring and summer, the fastest six-month pace in a decade, before slowing to a still-decent 2.6 percent pace in the final three months of 2014.
There are now 3.2 million more Americans earning paychecks than there were 12 months ago. That lifts consumer spending, which drives about 70 percent of economic growth.
More hiring, along with sharply lower gasoline prices, has boosted Americans' confidence and spending power. Consumer confidence jumped in January to its highest level in a decade, according to a survey by the University of Michigan. And Americans increased their spending during the final three months of last year at the fastest pace in nearly nine years.
A more confident, free-spending consumer could lend a spark that's been missing for most of the 5?-year-old economic recovery. Americans have been largely holding the line on spending and trying to shrink their debt loads. Signs that they are poised to spend more have boosted optimism that the economy will expand more than 3 percent this year for the first time in a decade.
One sector that has benefited from consumers' increased willingness to spend has been the auto industry. Auto sales jumped 14 percent in January from the previous year, according to Autodata Corp. Last month was the best January for sales in nine years.
Purchases of autos, appliances and furniture are helping keep factories busy even as weak economies in Asia and Europe and a stronger dollar have dampened demand for U.S. manufactured goods.
A rising dollar makes U.S. goods more expensive overseas. Orders for U.S. factory goods have dropped for five straight months. And exports fell in December, widening the U.S. trade deficit.