WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. hiring improved in February from the previous two months despite a blast of wintry weather, likely renewing hopes that growth will accelerate this year.

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The Labor Department says employers added 175,000 jobs last month, up from just 129,000 in January, which was revised up from 113,000.

The unemployment rate rose to 6.7 percent from a five-year low 6.6 percent. More Americans started looking for work but didn't find jobs. That's still an encouraging sign because more job hunters suggest that people were more optimistic about their prospects.

The figures were a welcome surprise after recent economic reports showed that harsh weather closed factories, lowered auto sales, and caused existing-home sales to plummet.

 

Also announced today, the U.S. trade deficit widened slightly in January as a rise in imports of oil and other foreign goods offset a solid increase in exports.

The Commerce Department says the trade deficit increased to $39.1 billion, up 0.3 percent from December's revised $39 billion deficit.

Exports climbed 0.6 percent to $192.8 billion, led by increased sales of U.S.-made machinery, aircraft and medical equipment. Imports also rose 0.6 percent to $231.6 billion, reflecting a 9 percent jump in imports of petroleum. Imports of food and machinery also rose.

The trade deficit is the difference between imports and exports. A higher trade deficit acts as a drag on economic growth because it means U.S. companies are making less overseas then their foreign competitors are earning in U.S. sales.