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Return of the tight job market

The economy added 243,000 jobs last month, and wages are on the upswing.

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America is having a jobs fair.

Employers are on the prowl, trying to entice construction workers, nurses, database administrators, and certified public accountants, just to name a few areas where businesses can't keep up with demand. Wages, once nonnegotiable, are on the table.

Would you rather live in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.; Charlottesville, Va.; or Fargo, N.D.? Just call: Someone in each of these places is advertising for workers.

The vibrant economy is now spilling over to the workforce with a strength that hasn't been seen since the late 1990s. The economy has added an average of 226,800 jobs per month for the past four months, including 243,000 in February, as reported last Friday. The surge is so strong that some economists now believe the Federal Reserve will be able to hike interest rates even higher without putting too much of a drag on the economy.

"The economy is a little bit stronger than the Federal Reserve's expectation," says Gregory Miller, chief economist at SunTrust Banks in Atlanta. "It gives them cover to raise interest rates with minimum risk of undermining sustainable growth."

The improved job market is encouraging those who had given up on finding work to try again, which is one reason the official unemployment rate rose to 4.8 percent last month. The "quit" rate is also up - a sign that employees feel confident about finding another job.

Only spots in the industrial Midwest appear to be missing out on the jobs surge.

"We're seeing areas where the unemployment rate has fallen to the lowest point in their labor history," says Mr. Miller.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 178 major metropolitan areas had unemployment rates in December below the then-national average of 4.6 percent. Thirty-three cites had unemployment rates below 3 percent, including Morgantown, W.Va.; Dothan, Ala.; and Bismarck, N.D.

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