WASHINGTON — U.S. employers added 217,000 jobs in May, a substantial gain for a fourth straight month, fueling hopes that the economy will accelerate after a grim start to the year.
Monthly job growth has now averaged 234,000 for the past three months, up sharply from 150,000 in the previous three. The unemployment rate, which is calculated from a separate survey, remained 6.3 percent in May. That is the lowest rate in more than five years.
The report Friday from the Labor Department signaled that the U.S. economy is steadily strengthening and outpacing struggling countries in Europe and Asia. U.S. consumers are showing more confidence. Auto sales have surged. Manufacturers are expanding steadily. Service companies are growing more quickly.
"I don't think we have a boom, but we have a good economy growing at about 3 percent," said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo. "We're pulling away from the rest of the world."
Investors seemed pleased. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 60 points in morning trading.
The job market has now reached a significant milestone: Nearly five years after the Great Recession ended, the economy has finally regained all the jobs lost in the downturn.
More job growth is needed, though, because the U.S. population has grown nearly 7 percent since then. Economists at the liberal Economic Policy Institute have estimated that 7 million more jobs would have been needed to keep up with population growth.
In addition, pay growth remains below levels typical of a healthy economy. Average wages have grown roughly 2 percent a year since the recession ended, well below the long-run average annual growth rate of about 3.5 percent.
In May, average hourly pay rose 5 cents to $24.38. That's up 2.1 percent from 12 months ago and barely ahead of inflation, which was 2 percent over the same period.
Weak wage growth has limited Americans' ability to spend. That, in turn, has slowed the economy, because consumer spending drives about 70 percent of economic activity.