Job growth accelerated more than forecast in February, but wages took an unanticipated hit.
Employers added 242,000 jobs last month, while the nation's unemployment rate stayed flat at 4.9 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. February's gain follows an upwardly revised 172,000 increase in payrolls in January.
"We don't expect payrolls to keep rising at anything like this pace, but the underlying momentum here is strong," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist with Pantheon Macroeconomics, in a note.
Although job growth picked up speed last month, average hourly earnings -- another key labor market gauge -- declined 0.1 percent from January. That's the first monthly drop in more than a year. Wage growth has held just above 2 percent since the expansion started in the middle of 2009.
"While the headline numbers in the report are important, many Americans are most eager for better pay gains. On that front, the February data represents a setback," wrote Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com, in a note. "Some slack remains in the job market."
Economists are watching the unemployment numbers for signs that the weakness that gripped the U.S. economy in the final three months of 2015 is persisting this year.
Global growth is slowing, led by China's downturn and diminishing demand for commodities. Some forecasters warn that the slowing abroad could hurt the U.S., although most economists expect moderate domestic economic growth in 2016.
U.S. economic data have been mixed in recent months. Although the pace of job-creation has remained solid and workers' wages are growing more quickly, a strong dollar and slumping demand abroad has hurt manufacturers and companies that operate globally.
America's gross domestic product -- the total value of goods and services -- fell to an anemic 1 percent in the fourth quarter.