The U.S. economy gained 242,000 jobs in February while average wages dropped slightly, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released Friday.

The unemployment rate held steady at 4.9 percent.

The report indicates stronger job growth than expected, and an improvement over the previous month. January's count of 151,000 new jobs — far lower than had been anticipated — was revised upward, to 172,000. And the job gains for December were also revised upward, from 262,000 to 271,000.

February's participation rate showed a small increase, rising by 0.2 percentage points, to 62.9 percent. NPR's Chris Arnold reports that's a promising sign, showing that "at least some discouraged workers who had given up looking for work are again finding jobs."

But the number of long-term unemployed hasn't budged, and neither has the number of part-time workers who would prefer to work full time.

Health care, retail, restaurants and educational services saw the greatest rise in available jobs. Mining employment continued its long decline, while most other industries showed little change in jobs, the BLS says.

The strong jobs growth was tempered somewhat by news that wage growth didn't meet expectations: After a 0.5 percent rise in average hourly earnings in January, economists had expected a modest rise in February, NPR's Yu Sun Chin reported for our Newscast unit.

Instead, average hourly wages dropped by 3 cents an hour, to $25.35. The average workweek also declined slightly, to 34.4 hours.

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