WASHINGTON - Employers stepped up hiring in August, expanding payrolls by 144,000 and lowering the unemployment rate marginally to 5.4 percent. While the figures didn’t amount to a national job fair, analysts said, they did hold out the promise of stronger growth following the summer lull.
The latest snapshot of the employment climate, contained in a Labor Department report Friday, came just about two months before the country votes for a president. President Bush sparred with Democratic rival John Kerry on the campaign trail over the health of the economy and the availability of work.
Bush seized upon the report as evidence his policies are working. ‘‘It shows that our economy is strong and getting stronger,’’ he told a crowd Friday at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania. ‘‘Our growing economy is spreading prosperity and opportunity and nothing will hold us back,’’ he enthused.
But Kerry, stumping in Ohio, said the new figures constituted another example of what he called Bush’s ‘‘record of failure.’’ The Massachusetts senator added: ‘‘I don’t think this is something to celebrate. I think it’s something to get to work on.’’
The 144,000 net jobs added to the economy in August — while slightly less than the 150,000 positions economists were forecasting — were the most since May and marked the 12th straight month that payrolls grew.
Employment figures for June and July were revised to show a combined 169,000 net jobs were created in those two months — 59,000 more than previously reported. ‘‘The report suggests the economy is gradually pulling out of its soft patch,’’ said Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Banc of America Capital Management. ‘‘It is still difficult to find a job but companies are beginning to selectively look for new hires.’’
Other business analysts, while still hopeful about future job growth improvements, weren’t as certain that the economy was coming out of its summer rut. ‘‘The numbers are OK, but the economy is still not firing on all cylinders,’’ said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com.