WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy shook off the winter doldrums and added a healthy batch of new jobs last month, a reassuring sign that the labor market recovery remains on track.
The gain of 192,000 jobs in March, reported Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, indicated that the hiring slowdown earlier in the winter was temporary and stemmed from the unusually cold weather across much of the country. All the jobs added last month came in the private sector, lifting total non-government payrolls to a new peak.
The jobless rate, though, stayed at an uncomfortably high level of 6.7% as more workers joined the labor force. A broader measure of unemployment and underemployment, which includes part-time workers who want more hours, edged up last month to 12.7%. And the share of long-term unemployed remained historically very high, a particular concern for many policymakers.
Still, the overall reaction to the jobs data from experts was positive. Despite the down day on Wall Street, attributed partly to a sell-off of tech stocks, analysts said various elements of the March employment report suggested a return to a moderate pace of hiring in the coming months, if not a slight acceleration.
"It's solid but unspectacular," said Dean Maki, an economist at Barclays Research in New York.
Barclays and some other forecasters were expecting slightly stronger numbers than the 200,000 increase in jobs that most analysts had projected for March, thinking employers might add more jobs to make up for hiring delayed by the harsh weather. That still may occur this spring, Maki said, but he wasn't confident of an imminent breakout from the pattern of job gains during the last couple of years, as economic growth has proceeded only modestly.
Employers last year added an average of 194,000 jobs a month. Hiring slowed markedly in December and January as icy conditions and heavy snow weakened economic activity, but last month workers in the private sector put in more hours. In particular, the length of the average workweek for manufacturing employees bounced up to match a nearly seven-decade high.
That has raised hopes that factory payrolls, although essentially flat in March, will expand in coming months. Car sales shot up last month after a soft winter, and purchasing managers have reported an increase in new factory orders.
"There's been so little capital expenditures, I think we'll start to see companies replacing aging plants and equipment," said Sharon Stark, a markets strategist at the brokerage firm D.A. Davidson & Co. Consumers also should start to spend a little more freely, she said, as home prices continue to rise and people feel more confident.
The recovering housing market's effect on employment was evident in March: Residential builders and specialty contractors were responsible for about half the 19,000 jobs added last month in the construction sector. Moreover, furniture manufacturers and real estate offices took on more employees.
Retail payrolls, meanwhile, rebounded after two months of weather-related declines. Restaurants and drinking establishments had another big month of hiring, as did temporary-help firms, a possible sign that employers are testing the waters before gearing up for more permanent employees. Many of these temporary jobs are in manufacturing.
With the March job gains, the economy reached a milestone of sorts. After more than four years, it has more than recovered all the millions of private-sector jobs shed in the last recession.
"The private sector lost 8.8 million jobs during the labor market downturn and has gained 8.9 million since the employment low in February 2010," Erica L. Groshen, the commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said in a statement accompanying the jobs report.
Still, the labor market remains far from where it once was.
Apart from the high unemployment rate, government employment in March was more than 800,000 shy of totals in the spring of 2009, with most of the public-sector job losses in local education.
It probably will be a few more months before the economy recovers all the nonfarm jobs erased in the downturn. Even then, it won't feel like a full recovery, analysts said, because millions more new jobs are needed to keep up with the increase in the working-age population of the last few years.
"We haven't really made up the losses," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Then there's the mix of winners and losers. Construction employment in March remained more than 1.5 million short of its pre-recession level. Ditto for manufacturing.
Those losses roughly equal the job gains in the last few years in two sectors: healthcare and social services, and restaurants and drinking establishments.
The changing mix helps explain the relatively higher unemployment for men: 6.8% in March versus 6.6% for women, with males dominating construction and manufacturing work. It also points to one of the continuing downward pressures on incomes as many higher-paying jobs have been replaced by lower-paying ones.
Friday's report showed average hourly earnings for private-sector workers dropped by a penny last month, to $24.30.
Construction and manufacturing pay above the hourly average, as does the health services category. But workers in restaurants and other leisure businesses make well below the average.
That both manufacturing output and employment have not recovered is particularly significant for the economy and job growth, said Susan Houseman, a labor economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
"We have lost this very important critical sector, and that's putting a big damper on jobs and the economy," she said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times