U.S. employers slowed hiring in March to the smallest gains since December 2013, adding a mere 126,000 jobs, far below the 245,000-250,000 predicted by labor economists. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.5 percent.
The report this morning from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also revised down the counts for February and January, shaving 69,000 jobs from the numbers initially reported. The average monthly jobs gain for the first quarter is now 197,000; for the same period last year, the average monthly gain was 220,000.
Long-stagnant wages jumped 7 cents an hour in March, raising the average hourly rate for non-farm workers to $24.86 and inching up the annual average to 2.1 percent. Since the recovery, annual hourly wage increases have hovered at 2 percent.
The Federal Reserve is closely watching the monthly labor reports, including wage gains, as it tries to decide when to begin raising interest rates. Economists and others expect that could happen this summer, but jobs reports like this one complicate the timing amidst the mixed economic signals.
Last week, the Commerce Department reported the economy grew 2.2 percent during the fourth quarter of 2014. Economists were predicting the rate would be 2.4 percent. Manufacturing slowed again in March, according to the Institute of Supply Managers, though it remains just above the point denoting growth.
Consumer confidence, though, rebounded from a dip in February to the second highest point since before the recession. And the four-week average of new unemployment claims fell to a 15-year low.
“The claims numbers simply do not support the idea that the first-quarter slowdown in growth is indicative of some underlying malaise in the economy,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, told The New York Times.
The hiring pause may be only temporary, a consequence of severe weather that kept consumer spending low and slowed the pace of construction in many parts of the country. Heavy construction, largely an outdoor activity, slowed significantly, shedding 6,500 jobs and leading the sector to an overall 1,000 worker reduction.
Mining registered a loss of 11,000 jobs, a consequence of petroleum companies slowing new drilling and other work in the face of dropping prices.
Some of the strongest job growth came, as it has now for many years, in healthcare. The sector added 22,300 jobs, most of those in doctor’s offices, outpatient facilities, and home health services. Hospitals added 7,900 jobs.
The retail sector also gained sharply, adding 25,900 workers. General merchandise stores added 10,900 of which 1,600 were in department stores. The overall increase was about the same as the monthly average in 2014.
Employment in food services and drinking places grew by 9,000, a sharp decline from February when the sector added 66,000 workers. Job growth in the first quarter of 2015 averaged 33,000 per month, the same as the average monthly gain in 2014.
The financial sector added 8,000 jobs, most of those in insurance and real estate.
Temporary help grew by 11,400 jobs.
The ranks of the nation’s unemployed continued to thin last month. Including those officially counted as unemployed, plus those working part-time because they can’t find other work, and those who are looking for work but didn’t during the survey week, the nation’s total unemployed — the so-called U-6 total — was 10.9 million in March.