The improving economy is finally starting to translate into meaningful job creation, with new data Friday showing that employers shrugged off rising fuel prices and other concerns to keep hiring in March.
The unemployment rate has now fallen a full percentage point since November, and private employers created more jobs in the first three months of the year than in any similar span since 2006.
The plight of American workers, nonetheless, remains difficult, with the jobless rate at 8.8 percent, down from 8.9 percent a month earlier. At the current pace of economic growth, it will take years for the rate to return to healthy levels. But the numbers released Friday by the Labor Department confirm that a series of upbeat readings on the job market in recent weeks were more than blips and reflected a significant trend.
And the report, which said employers added 216,000 net jobs last month, was perhaps most encouraging for what it didn’t show. Despite higher fuel prices and turmoil in the Middle East, there was no noticeable decrease in business confidence. Employers pressed ahead with their plans to expand hiring.
“We’ve never had a growth spurt to this degree in the eight years I’ve been here,” said Mark Pringle, director of operations at a Siemens plant in Charlotte. The facility makes turbines and generators for electrical plants and has hired 200 people so far this year. “We’re finding a lot of good people out there applying for these jobs.”
The jobs numbers come amid other promising signs that the recovery is building momentum. The stock market wrapped up the first quarter this week with a 6.4 percent gain in the Dow Jones industrial average and continued to tack upward Friday, adding another 0.5 percent. Investors were pleased that the job growth was continuing — but not so fast that the Federal Reserve might want to apply the brakes by raising interest rates anytime soon.
Also contributing to the buoyant markets were reports from automakers Friday showing that auto sales rose in March. Sales of new vehicles were up 11 percent over a year before at General Motors, 16 percent at Ford and 23 percent at Honda.
A separate report Friday also showed continued strong growth in the manufacturing sector, with the Institute for Supply Management’s index of activity at the nation’s factories edging down to 61.2 from 61.4. Numbers above 50 indicate expansion.
But the stronger jobs numbers offered the clearest evidence that the economic recovery is on track.
The Obama administration, while continuing to emphasize that unemployment remains too high, pointed to the report as a sign of economic progress.
“It’s not a flash in the pan,” Austan Goolsbee, the president's chief economist, said in an interview. He noted that the employment report showed that jobs were being added across a broad range of industries and that private payrolls had expanded for 13 straight months.
Republican leaders, while acknowledging progress, argued that the policies they propose would accomplish even more.
“Any improvement in the jobs picture is welcome news for the country, but Washington needs to do more to end the uncertainty plaguing job creators,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. That, he added, would mean reducing government spending, “ending the threat” of tax hikes, reducing regulation and approving new trade agreements.
Independent economists viewed the report with a sense of restrained optimism and a degree of relief. In recent weeks, there have been conflicting signs from economic indicators, including weak readings on housing and capital investment by businesses. Many leading forecasters had lowered their estimates of first-quarter growth, and some feared that political turmoil overseas and higher energy prices might scare businesses away from making new hires.
“My reaction was ‘phew,’ ” said Jerry A. Webman, chief economist of Oppenheimer Funds. “That’s better than ‘ugh’ but not as good as ‘wow.’ ”
The Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis happened too late in March to significantly affect the monthly employment report. But they could influence future numbers, particularly if shortages of Japanese-made supplies cause U.S. factories to suspend production.
In the fine print of Friday’s Labor Department report, there was not much to love but plenty to like. The improvement in the unemployment rate was attributed to the 291,000 additional workers who described themselves as having a job, rather than people giving up their job search out of frustration.
A broader measure of unemployment — which also captures discouraged people who have given up looking for work and those who are working part time but want a full-time job — fell to 15.7 percent from 15.9 percent. The length of the average workweek rose to 33.6 hours, from 33.5, allowing those who already were working to take home more income. (In a less promising sign, average hourly earnings dropped).
The employment gains were were strongest in professional and business services, a category that includes white-collar professionals such as accountants as well as those working for temporary employment services. That sector added 78,000 positions. Other major job creators were health care, which added 45,500 jobs; leisure and hospitality, 37,000 jobs; retail, 18,000 jobs; and manufacturing, 17,000 jobs.
The only sector to shed large numbers of jobs was government. Local governments cut 15,000 positions in March, reflecting ongoing budget woes.