The American economy cranked out 243,000 jobs in January, moving the unemployment rate to the lowest level since February 2009.

The U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics reported Friday that the jobless rate dropped by 0.2 of a percentage point to 8.3 per cent last month. The rate has fallen steadily in recent months, moving 0.8 of a percentage point lower since August.

The 243,000 jobs total was the most the U.S. economy has created since April 2011, and far exceeded what economists were expecting. A consensus of experts polled by Bloomberg were anticipating about 140,000 jobs to be created, but the estimates ranged from 95,000 to 225,000.

Political gains

The positive report is good news for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has come under fire from Republican presidential hopefuls over his handling of the economy.

"The economy is growing stronger," Obama told an audience in West Virginia, "The recovery is speeding up. And we've got to do everything in our power to keep it going."

He also called on Congress to "not slow down the recovery that we're on."

Widespread growth

Employers have added an average of 201,000 jobs per month in the last three months. That's 50,000 more jobs per month than the economy averaged in each month last year.

Beyond the headline number, the details of the report were encouraging. Hiring was strongest in high-paying industries like technology, and salaries increased across the board, on average.

The agency also revised previously announced data that shows the U.S. economy added 200,000 more jobs in 2011 than first thought.

Leaving the workforce

But January's surprise gains weren't without a few dark spots. Chronic unemployment in the U.S. has left many Americans pessimistic about ever returning to the workforce, and that's skewing the numbers.

A record 1.2 million Americans gave up looking for work in January, dropping the participation rate in the workforce to a 30-year low.