The nation's unemployment rate held steady at 6.1 percent in September as businesses added to payrolls for the first time in eight months, suggesting that the weak job market could be stabilizing.

A survey of U.S. companies showed a net increase of 57,000 jobs last month, the Labor Department (search) reported Friday, and there was new hope for recovery in the slumping manufacturing sector. Some 29,000 factory jobs were lost in that area, but that was considerably fewer than in previous months.

Economists had expected the overall civilian unemployment rate to rise to 6.2 percent and had anticipated a loss of 25,000 more jobs.

People seeking work are not out of the woods yet, the latest report indicates. The number of jobless people looking for work for 27 weeks or more rose to 2.1 million last month. Also, people working part time because they can't find full-time work increased to nearly 5 million, said the Bureau of Labor Statistics (search).

The economy had shown signs of growth in recent months, but those improvements failed to trickle down to the jobs market. Companies have been fearful of taking on the increased cost of new workers, relying on their existing employees to do more. Economists think companies will wait to see steady profits before going on a hiring spree.

Amid signs of an economic rebound, the Federal Reserve (search) last month decided to hold a key short-term interest rate at a 45-year low of 1 percent. Analysts think policy-makers will leave that rate unchanged again when they next meet, on Oct. 28.

The weak hiring outlook could mean trouble for President Bush's re-election next year. The 10 Democrats vying to challenge him have latched onto the economy as a campaign issue, criticizing the administration for tax cuts they say have benefited the wealthy and failed to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.

In Friday's reports, manufacturing lost jobs for the 37th straight month, a record, although the pace of the hemorrhaging slowed somewhat.

Construction employment was up for the month, with 14,000 new jobs. That sector has added jobs for seven straight months.

In the non-manufacturing sector, professional and business services added 66,000 new jobs last month, with half of the gain occurring in temporary employment services. That gain is significant because analysts closely watch the sector for signs of a turnaround. Growing companies often will hire temporary workers before taking on commitments to full-time employees.

Gains also were found in health care and social assistance; transportation and warehousing; and financial services.