Like a breath of spring air hinting at better days ahead, a government report Friday showed the U.S. economy added 162,000 jobs in March, the most in three years.
Though encouraging, the boost wasn't enough to lower the unemployment rate. It remained stuck at 9.7% for a third straight month as job seekers surged back into the labor market, lured by signs of the country's recovery from the worst economic crisis in more than half a century.
Economists were generally cautious in assessing the employment gain.
"Having lost 8.2 million jobs over a period of two years, it's a drop in the bucket," said Bart van Ark, chief economist at the Conference Board, a research group. "It's too early to say we have a sustainable recovery."
Part of the concern is that it's hard to pinpoint areas of the economy with the potential to send employment rocketing upward.
Analysts say the economy needs to add about 125,000 jobs a month just to keep pace with population growth. Many more than that will be needed to lower the jobless rate.
Still, Van Ark said, March was "the first month of really solid growth" in a long time. "We can be a little bit more optimistic."
Alan Levenson, chief economist at mutual fund giant T. Rowe Price, sounded more upbeat. The March performance "sets in motion a self-reinforcing dynamic that lends solidity to the expansion," he wrote in a note to clients.
President Obama hailed the report as a milestone.
"We are beginning to turn the corner," he said in an appearance at a Charlotte, N.C., company that produces lithium battery devices. "This month more Americans woke up, got dressed and headed to work in an office or factory or storefront. More folks are feeling the sense of pride and satisfaction that comes with a hard-earned and well-deserved paycheck at the end of a long week of work."
The stock market didn't react to the job data because it was closed for Good Friday. In the bond market, interest rates rose as traders took the news as another sign that the economic recovery can sustain itself.
Although the report reflected the hiring of 48,000 temporary workers by the Census Bureau, the private sector generated 123,000 jobs, more than expected.
Manufacturing payrolls grew for a third month in a row, adding 17,000 jobs, led by fabricated metal and machinery makers. Some factory owners say they hope to hire this spring but don't want to expand too quickly.
"I'm looking at the second quarter to see how business pans out," said Sandra Westlund-Deenihan, president of Quality Float Works Inc., a Chicago-area maker of industrial floats and valves.
The company's sales, domestic as well as foreign, have been picking up since last fall. But she has been filling the gap by giving overtime and Saturday work to her existing 17 employees and by going to the shop floor herself to help out.
"We can't get the work out the door without people," she said.
The temporary-help sector, an indicator of future permanent hiring, added 40,000 positions last month.
The financial and information industries lost jobs in March, but healthcare, education, retail and leisure employers all added to their payrolls. Even hard-hit construction ended its long string of severe job losses.
The Labor Department on Friday also increased its estimates of the number of jobs in the economy in January and February. As a result, the department said, the economy added 14,000 jobs in January, instead of losing 26,000 as previously reported, officials said. And February's decline in jobs was shaved by more than half to 14,000.
Taking the first three months together, the economy added an average of 54,000 jobs monthly -- a dramatic turnaround from losses averaging 752,700 jobs a month in the first quarter of 2009 and 89,700 in the final quarter of last year. Those figures don't include self-employed workers, who are not precisely tracked.
In the months ahead, the economy will get a lift from the Census Bureau's hiring of hundreds of thousands more temporary workers to knock on doors and collect data for the once-a-decade count of the nation's population. But most of those jobs will be part-time, paying $10 to $20 an hour, and many will last just a few weeks.
A big question is whether private employers can pick up the pace of hiring fast enough to drive down the unemployment rate. Thirteen states had double-digit unemployment rates in February -- including California, with a 12.5% jobless rate.
A broader measure of unemployment plus under-employment, which includes part-time workers who want full-time jobs, rose a notch to 16.9% in March.
As prospects for job hunters improve, workers sidelined during the recession are reentering the labor force. In March, that meant the labor force -- which includes people looking for jobs as well as those who are working -- grew by nearly 400,000 people, more than offsetting the rise in jobs.
"While [Friday's report] is very good news, it's not a signal that the private sector is poised to create the kinds of numbers of jobs to put many people back to work," said economist Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
The ranks of the unemployed grew last month by 134,000, topping 15 million. And a record 44% of these workers, or more than 6.5 million, have been jobless for six months or longer.
"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 group lobbying for an extension of jobless benefits through 2010.
Many analysts see unemployment remaining high for the next few years. Economic output is expected to grow at only about half the robust 5.6% annual rate posted in the fourth quarter of 2009.
The housing industry, often a strong job generator after a recession, remains depressed and can't be expected to lead a recovery. The manufacturing sector, which has helped pull the economy out of its nose dive, faces long-term problems of global competition and currency barriers.
"Where are the jobs going to come from?" Van Ark of the Conference Board asked, adding, "Caution is required."
Times staff writer Peter Nicholas in Washington contributed to this report.