U.S. Job Gains Strongest in Seven Months http://cnn.netscape.cnn.com/ns/news...9130002844293&dt=20041105091300&w=RTR&coview= WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New U.S. jobs soared at the sharpest rate in seven months in October, the government reported on Friday, helped by a surge in construction activity as hurricane-battered areas in the Southeast were rebuilt. A surprisingly strong 337,000 jobs were added to payrolls last month -- twice the 169,000-job growth that Wall Street economists had forecast and the strongest since March when 353,000 jobs were created, the Labor Department said. Still, the unemployment rate edged up to 5.5 percent from 5.4 percent in September, but that was because more people joined the search for employment, a potentially hopeful sign. Not only was October a strong month but the number of jobs created in the two prior months was revised up -- to 139,000 in September instead of 96,000 and to 198,000 in August instead of 128,000. The dollar, which has been under pressure, strengthened broadly on the news while bond prices weakened in the expectation that a resurgent labor market may foster higher interest rates and that investors may favor stocks. "It looks like the job situation is improving and that this will support consumer spending going into the holidays and offset some of the drag caused by high oil prices this year," said economist Gary Thayer of A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. in St, Louis, Missouri. The resurgent labor market data come days before Federal Reserve policy-makers, meeting Wednesday, are expected to nudge official short-term interest rates up for a fourth time this year, by a quarter percentage point, to lift the federal funds rate to 2 percent. Analysts said it might mean that the U.S. central bank was less likely to halt its current rate-rising cycle after next week, as many had speculated before the jobs data, though it was too early to conclude that another hike was likely at this year's final policy-setting meeting in December. "It should empower the Fed to clearly do something next week and probably raises the odds that they will do something in December," said Robert MacIntosh, chief economist with Eaton Vance Management in Boston. Kathleen Utgoff, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, noted that 71,000 new construction jobs -- the biggest since March 2000 -- "reflected rebuilding and cleanup activity in the Southeast following the four hurricanes that struck the U.S. in August and September." Florida and other southeastern states were hit by severe storms that inflicted heavy damage to homes and businesses.