California's employers added 11,800 jobs in March, a modest increase but one that nevertheless kept momentum going in the job market.
The unemployment rate, meanwhile, held steady at 8.1% from the month-earlier revised figure, the state's Employment Development Department reported Friday.
"We are zig-zagging on a monthly basis. One month is strong and the next is weak," said Esmael Adibi, an economist at Chapman University. "But based on what we see at the national level, we will get much stronger growth" this year.
March paled in comparison with the robust 62,100 jobs added in February. But economists said that the unusually strong showing in February was bolstered by pent-up demand from the effects of the long, bitterly cold winter throughout most of the nation.
Last month's numbers, though well below the monthly average for last year, were more in line with what economists said was a gradual upward trend.
California employers have now added a net 325,100 jobs over the last 12 months, the biggest gains of any state. Its payrolls grew by 2.2%, compared with 1.6% for the U.S. overall.
That's still not enough, though, to make a huge difference or to help people like Oscar Garcia, 41.
The downtown Los Angeles resident is hoping he'll benefit from any economic good news this year. He said he has cobbled together a string of jobs through temporary agencies in recent years; his most recent position at a warehouse ended last month.
"I was hoping the previous place would offer me a full-time job, but no one seems to be hiring for full time," Garcia said. "Right now, I'm going through my savings."
Analysts said several economic indicators point to an acceleration in the job market for both California and the nation this year.
Retail sales rose 1.1% in March, the largest uptick since September 2012, the Commerce Department reported this week. New claims for jobless benefits hit pre-recession lows. More than two-thirds of states enjoyed job gains in March.
"We will get more growth in the next three quarters," said Jerry Nickelsburg, a senior economist for UCLA's Anderson School of Management forecast. "We have increased consumption, investment in housing and you're finally seeing a rebuilding of the construction labor force."
The slow-but-steady improvement of the job market helped nudge 47,700 people into the labor force last month. That is often a sign that workers are encouraged enough by the economy to polish their resumes and hunt for jobs once again.
The increase in the labor force is a factor in the flat unemployment rate month-to-month. A growing labor force could push the unemployment rate up even if employers keep hiring.
"We are seeing enough new jobs right now to keep the unemployment rate from rising even as more people are coming into the labor market," said Robert Kleinhenz, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
"But I would not be surprised over the next few months to see the unemployment rate go sideways for a while," he said.
Seven out of 11 sectors reported nonfarm job gains in March.
Construction, which has enjoyed the biggest growth in the last 12 months, continues to be a bright spot in California, adding 2,400 jobs last month.
Professional and business services, such as lawyers, architects and security guards, added 3,100. The information sector, which includes film and television industries, reported the largest jump with 7,000 jobs.
Companies have recently begun hiring more fresh college graduates and workers who qualify for mid-level management positions, said Brandi Britton, a district president of professional staffing firm Robert Half International.
"A couple of years ago, we didn't see a lot of demand for those mid-management types," Britton said. "Now businesses are adding staff versus just replacing or making do."
A slowdown in mortgage refinancing, meanwhile, continues to hurt the financial services sector, which shed 2,400 jobs in March. Manufacturing also lost 1,700 positions.
The sector known as other services, a wide-ranging group that includes auto mechanics and hair stylists, and the leisure and hospitality industry lost 1,100 jobs each.
In Southern California, there were job gains throughout much of the region.
Los Angeles County's employers added 18,900 jobs, and its jobless rate remained at 8.7% in March. Orange County's employers added 3,500 positions, and its jobless rate dropped to 5.8% from 5.9% in February.
Riverside and San Bernardino counties combined added 3,000 jobs, and their jobless rate was unchanged at a combined 9.4%. San Diego County gained 12,700 jobs and its unemployment rate fell to 6.9% from 7% a month earlier.
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