The government published new figures yesterday suggesting possible improvement in the nation's inflation outlook, but a corresponding worsening in the job picture.
Labor Department statistics showed that prices charged by producers rose 1.4 percent in March, an 18.2 percent compound annual rate but still down from the 1.5 percent increase in February and 1.6 percent in January.
More important, there was dramatic improvement in prices charged at the intermediate stage of processing and for crude materials, which affect wholesale prices in later months.
At the same time, however, the nation's unemployment rate bounced back to 6.2 percent of the work force in March, from 6 percent in February, while the number of jobs in the economy declined appreciably for the first time in months.
Although the March increase in the jobless rate was small, there were signs that it could prove to be the start of the long-expected recession. Most of the added unemployment resulted from layoffs.
Analysts cautioned that it still was too early to call either the price figures or the job statistics a trend. Economists are expecting to see sharp price hikes in April and May, in part from President Carter's oil import fee.
However, Janet L. Norwood, commissioner of labor statistics, told the congressional Joint Economic Committee yesterday that the producer price figures were "the most encouraging news we have had in some months."
The 1.4 percent rise in producer prices brought inflation at the wholesale level to an annual rate of 19.3 percent for the first three months of the year.
The Carter administration has increased its forecast for inflation at the retail level to 12.8 percent during 1980, compared to 13.3 percent last year. However, many economists regard this forecast as optimistic.
About half of the 1.4 percent rise in the producer index was a result of energy prices, which have risen at an annual rate of 110 percent so far this year in the wake of December crude-oil price hikes.
Food prices at the wholesale level also rose sharply in March, signaling a likely end to the price relief in supermarkets in recent weeks. Producer food prices jumped 1.1 percent in March after declining the two previous months.
However, price increases for other items slowed considerably in March, partly because of declines in gold and silver, but also because of price improvement in a broad range of goods from apparel and furniture to tires and shops.
More important, there was a dramatic slowdown in price increases for products at the intermediate stage of the manufacturing process, such as construction materials.
Imtermediate prices rose 0.5 percent in March, compared to 1.8 percent in February and 2.8 percent in January. And prices of crude materials plunged 2.2 percent, indicating a significant easing in commodity speculation.
The increase in joblessness this time came largely among adult men, whose unemployment rate jumped to 4.9 percent in March from 4.6 percent in February. Jobless rates for most other categories of workers remained unchanged.
For the first time in recent months, most of the increase stemmed from layoffs or firings, rather than from the failure of new job-seekers to find employment. Because of the worsening housing slump, construction workers were hard hit.
The total number of jobs in the economy shrank markedly over the month, dropping 297,000 after rising 149,000 in February. Industry payrolls also fell, though by a more modest 140,000 slots.
Despite the layoffs in the auto industry, the jobless rate for Michigan edged down in March to 10.2 percent of that state's work force, from 10.3 percent in February.
Other state unemployment rates included 6.9 percent for Illinois, New York and New Jersey, 6.8 percent for Pennsylvania, 5.8 percent for Texas, 5.2 percent for Florida and 4.9 percent for Massachusetts.
However, there also were some early signs that the March deterioration in the job picture might be the start of a more serious slide:
The index of hours worked each week declined by 0.6 percent over the month, with drops both in construction and in virtually all the major manufacturing industries. The decline was the second in a row.
The percentage of American industries in which employment increased dipped to 45.3 percent in March, down from 57 percent in February and the lowest percentage in almost a year.
The number of discouraged workers -- those who have given up looking for work because they are convinced they can't find any -- rose sharply over the quarter to 1 million persons, its highest level since late 1977.
The 6.2 percent jobless rate recorded in March is the same as was posted in January. The unemployment rate has hovered around the 6 percent level for most of the past 20 months. Economists now regard a 5 3/4 percent unemployment rate or lower as "full" employment.