WASHINGTON -- Employment grew for the first time in seven months, beating expectations, as the jobless rate fell for a second straight month, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

The jobless rate declined to 5.5% in February from 5.6% in the previous month. That drop came as a rise in retail employment helped add 66,000 jobs to payrolls outside the farm sector -- the first addition to payrolls since a mild 18,000 gain in July 2001.