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Steadily improving US jobs market supportive of Fed rate hike

[WASHINGTON] US employment rose at a solid clip in July and wages rebounded after a surprise stall in the prior month, signs of an improving economy that could open the door wider to a Federal Reserve interest rate hike in September.

Nonfarm payrolls increased 215,000 last month as a pickup in construction ad manufacturing employment offset further declines in the mining sector, the Labour Department said on Friday. The unemployment rate held at a seven-year low of 5.3 per cent.

Payrolls data for May and June were revised to show 14,000 more jobs created than previously reported. In addition, the average workweek increased to 34.6 hours, the highest since February, from 34.5 hours in June.

Though hiring has slowed from last year's robust pace, it remains at double the rate needed to keep up with population growth. The Fed last month upgraded its assessment of the labour market, describing it as continuing to "improve, with solid job gains and declining unemployment." Average hourly earnings increased five cents, or 0.2 per cent, last month after being flat in June. That put them 2.1 per cent above their year-ago level, but left them well shy of the 3.5 per cent growth rate economists associate with full employment.

Still, the gain supports views that a sharp slowdown in compensation growth in the second quarter and consumer spending in June were temporary. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast nonfarm payrolls increasing 223,000 last month and the unemployment rate holding steady at 5.3 per cent.

Wage growth has been disappointingly slow. But tightening labour market conditions and decisions by several state and local governments to raise their minimum wage have fuelled expectations of a pickup.

In addition, a number of retailers, including Walmart , the nation's largest private employer, Target and TJX Cos have increased pay for hourly workers.

The jobless rate is near the 5.0 per cent to 5.2 per cent range most Fed officials think is consistent with a steady but low level of inflation.

A broad measure of joblessness that 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 10.4 per cent, the lowest since June 2008, from 10.5 per cent in June.

The labour force participation rate, or the share of working-age Americans who are employed or at least looking for a job, held at a more than 37-1/2-year low of 62.6 per cent.

The fairly healthy employment report added to robust July automobile sales and service industries data in suggesting the economy continues to gather momentum after growing at a 2.3 per cent annual rate in the second quarter.

Employment gains in July were concentrated in service industries. At the same time, construction payrolls rose 6,000 thanks to a strengthening housing market, after being unchanged in June. Factory employment increased 15,000 as some automakers have decided to forgo a usual summer plant shutdown for retooling. Manufacturing payrolls rose 2,000 in June.

More layoffs in the energy sector, which is grappling with last year's sharp decline in crude oil prices, were a drag on mining payrolls, which shed 4,000 jobs in July.

Oilfield giants Schlumberger and Halliburton and many others in the oil and gas industry have announced thousands of job cuts in the past few months.