WASHINGTON - The nation's economy posted its largest job
gain in three years in March, while the unemployment rate remained
at 9.7 percent for the third straight month.
The increase in payrolls is the latest sign that the economic
recovery is gaining momentum and healing in the job market is
beginning. Still, the healing is likely to be slow, and most
economists don't expect new hiring to be fast enough this year to
rapidly reduce the unemployment rate.
The Labor Department said employers added 162,000 jobs in March,
the most since the recession began but below analysts' expectations
of 190,000. The total includes 48,000 temporary workers hired for
the U.S. Census, also fewer than many economists forecast.
Private employers added 123,000 jobs, the most since May 2007.
"It's just the beginning of a rise in private hiring that will
help sustain the recovery," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist
at PNC Financial Services Group. "They're not big numbers, but
they're welcome numbers."
Still, there are 15 million Americans out of work, roughly
double the total before the recession began in December 2007. More
Americans entered the work force last month, which prevented the
increase in jobs from reducing the unemployment rate.
The economy likely began recovering in the middle of last year,
but is only now showing modest job gains.
"It is still disappointing that it took roughly nine months
before we started to see any meaningful rebound" in jobs, Paul
Ashworth, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a
note to clients.
The stock market is closed Friday. Interest rates rose in the
bond market after the report. Investors often sell Treasurys and
favor riskier assets like stocks and commodities when the economy
Manufacturers added 17,000 jobs, the third straight month of
gains. Temporary help services added 40,000, while health care
added 37,000. Leisure and hospitality added 22,000.
Even the beleaguered construction industry added 15,000
positions, though that likely reflects a rebound from February,
when major snowstorms may have kept many construction workers off
The average work week increased to 34 hours from 33.9, a
positive sign. Most employers are likely to work current employees
longer before they hire new workers.
The department also revised January's job total to show a gain
of 14,000, up from a previously reported loss of 26,000. February's
job numbers were also revised higher by 22,000 to show a loss of
14,000. The economy has now added jobs in three separate months
since the recession began.
Still, more Americans said they were working part-time even
though they preferred full-time work. When they and discouraged
workers who have given up searching for jobs are included, the
"underemployment" rate ticked up to 16.9 percent from 16.8
And average hourly earnings fell by two cents to $22.47. That
shows that high unemployment is enabling companies to hold down
wages. Average weekly earnings rose by about $3 to $629.37, partly
reflecting the longer work week.
In a stark illustration of how hard it remains for many people
to find jobs, the number of those out of work for six months or
longer increased to 6.5 million, a record high.
More than 44 percent of those out of work are long-term
unemployed, also a record.
"For those laid off, unemployment is stretching longer and
longer and putting severe distress on families," said Christine
Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a
nonprofit advocacy group.
Still, Friday's jobs report follows positive data earlier this
week that showed consumers are increasing their spending and
manufacturing activity is growing at its fastest pace in more than
five years. Economists are increasingly confident that the nation
will avoid a "double-dip" recession, in which growth slows after
a short burst at the end of last year.
"The stars are starting to align here," said Brian Bethune,
chief U.S. financial economist at IHS Global Insight.
The economy is likely to expand at a roughly 3 percent pace in
the current January-to-March quarter, analysts predict. That's
roughly half the 5.6 percent pace seen in the final quarter of last
Normally, growth in the 3 percent range would be considered
respectable. But the nation is emerging from the worst recession
since the 1930s. Growth needs to be in the 5 percent range or
higher to quickly drive down the unemployment rate. Both the
Federal Reserve and Obama administration expect joblessness will
remain above 9 percent through the end of this year.