The U.S. economy created jobs at the fastest pace in nine months in January and the unemployment rate dropped to a near three-year low, offering a hopeful sign for hiring in the year ahead.

Employers added a net 243,000 jobs last month, the Labor Department reported Friday — that’s the most since April and far better than economists’ expectations for a gain of only 150,000. “It’s a strong number, a very strong number, I would say,” said Vassili Serebriakov, a currency strategist at Wells Fargo Bank. “It’s consistent with the broad improvement in the U.S. economic data, but I think the extent of strength in today’s report is somewhat of a surprise, and this is a good sign for the U.S. employment market and the U.S. economy.”

The nation’s unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent in January from 8.5 percent in the prior month. The rate has dropped 0.8 percentage point since August and is now at its lowest level in nearly three years, having fallen for five consecutive months — the first time that has happened since late 1994.

The decline in the jobless rate reflected large gains in employment in the separate household survey from which the jobless rate is derived. Job gains were widespread, with even the transportation and warehousing sector increasing payrolls.

The jobless rate is calculated based on a government survey. A separate survey calculates how many payroll jobs are added. Neither survey takes into consideration how many people are collecting unemployment benefits.

January saw the most jobs added since and April and May 2010, when 277,000 and 458,000 jobs were created. But those months were skewed by massive hiring for the census. Before that, the last month with more job creation was March 2006.

The upbeat tenor of the January jobs report was further strengthened by revisions to November and December payrolls data, which showed 60,000 more jobs created than previously reported. In addition, hiring was widespread across many high-paying industries. And average hourly earnings rose four cents, which should help to support spending.

The report also suggested that expectations of a slowdown in U.S. economic growth in the first quarter were not yet having an impact on companies’ hiring decisions.

The continued labor market improvement could be a relief for President Barack Obama who faces a tough re-election campaign this year.

Speaking at an event in Arlington, Va., Friday, Obama welcomed the strong January jobs report. But, he added, there are “still far too many Americans who need a job.” “The economy is growing stronger. The recovery is speeding up. And we have to do everything in our power to keep it going,” Obama said.

Obama also called on Congress to pass a payroll tax extension and avoid sabotaging the recovery. “Now is not the time for self-inflicted wounds to our economy,” he said, describing his message to Congress as: “Do not slow down the recovery that we’re on. Don’t muck it up.” advertisement

Manufacturing grew at its fastest pace in seven months in January, and fewer Americans sought unemployment benefits last week, showing companies are cutting fewer jobs. Also, retail sales increases last month, carmakers started the year with strong January sales and the U.S. economy expanded at a 2.8 percent annual pace in the final four months of last year. That was one percentage point higher than in the previous quarter.

Still, economists expect slower growth this year, as much of the growth at the end of last year was due to companies ordering more goods to restock their shelves. Also, an expected slowdown in Europe could mean slower demand for U.S. goods this year. And the U.S. Federal Reserve said last week that it will probably hold interest rates near zero at least through 2014, citing still-high unemployment.

Even with the January jobs gain, the employment market still faces a long road back to full health. The nation has about 5.6 million fewer jobs than it did when the recession began in late 2007. And there are still 12.8 million people out of work, though that is the fewest since the recession ended. An additional 11 million are either working part-time but would prefer full-time work, or have stopped searching for jobs.

When all those groups are combined, nearly 24 million are considered “underemployed.” The so-called “underemployment” rate ticked down in January to 15.1 percent, from 15.2 percent.