By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. employers added the largest number of workers in nearly three years in November and wage gains picked up, a sign of economic strength that could draw the Federal Reserve closer to raising interest rates.
Nonfarm payrolls surged by 321,000, the most since January 2012, the Labor Department said on Friday. The unemployment rate held steady at a six-year low of 5.8 percent.
"This greenlights a Fed lift-off in mid-2015," said Robert Dye, chief economist at Comerica in Dallas.
Data for September and October were revised to show 44,000 more jobs created than previously reported, adding more sparkle to the report. November's job gains blew past Wall Street's expectations for an increase of only 230,000.
It marked the 10th straight month that job growth has exceeded 200,000, the longest stretch since 1994 and further confirmation the economy is weathering slowdowns in China and the euro zone, as well as a recession in Japan.
A separate report from the Commerce Department showed exports increased 1.2 percent in October, helping to slightly narrow the trade deficit. Exports to the European Union, China and Japan all increased.
The economy added 2.65 million jobs over the last 11 months, surpassing the 2.33 million created in 2013.
"The economy is literally blasting off. It's heading in the right direction and the outlook is a solid one," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank in New York.
The data buoyed U.S. stocks and helped lift the dollar to a 5-1/2-year high against a basket of currencies as traders brought forward bets on the timing of the first rate hike. The yield on the two-year Treasury note hit a 3-1/2-year high.
The employment report provided the latest sign that a strengthening jobs market is starting to spur faster wage growth, a key factor that will help determine when the U.S. central bank starts lifting borrowing costs.
Average hourly earnings rose by 9 cents in November, the largest increase since June of last year.
Nevertheless, the gain left them up just 2.1 percent from a year ago - in the same tepid range they have held for the past few years and well below the 3 percent or more economists say the Fed wants to see before lifting benchmark borrowing costs.
WAGE GROWTH TURNING?
The Fed has held overnight rates near zero since December 2008 and has pledged to keep them low for a "considerable time." Many economists said policymakers could back off that pledge as soon as their next meeting on Dec. 16-17.
"The November wage increase is a warning that labor market conditions are already starting to turn," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania. "I suspect the Fed will be talking about a tightening labor market at its next meeting."
Details of the report were upbeat, even though a smaller and more volatile survey of households showed mild job gains after robust increases in prior months.
Most of the measures Fed Chair Janet Yellen tracks to gauge the amount of slack in the labor market showed improvement.
A broad measure of joblessness that includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment fell to a fresh six-year low of 11.4 percent from 11.5 percent in October.
In addition, the number of long-term unemployed Americans fell to its lowest level in nearly six years, and the number working only part-time even though they wanted full-time work hit a six-year trough.
The bigger establishment survey showed job gains were broad-based last month.
Employment in professional and businesses services jumped by 68,000, while retail payrolls increased by 50,200, their largest rise since last December, as employers stepped up hiring in anticipation of a strong holiday shopping season.
Hiring in both the manufacturing and construction sectors accelerated, and the government added 7,000 workers.
The length of the workweek increased to an average of 34.6 hours, the highest since May 2008, from 34.5 hours in October. With workers putting in longer hours, further job gains may be in the offing.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Paul Simao)