Nonfarm Payrolls Add 162,000

U.S. employers added 162,000 jobs in March, while the nation's unemployment rate held steady at 9.7%.
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Updated from 8:38 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON (

TheStreet

) -- Employers added 162,000 jobs to nonfarm payrolls in March, according to the government Friday morning, its most robust gain in three years that could represent a turning point in the nation's sluggish labor market.

In a highly anticipated release, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said nonfarm payrolls turned positive for only the third time since December 2007, while the nation's unemployment rate landed in-line with expectations and held steady at 9.7%.

Ahead of the report, the Street thought employers would add 184,000 jobs last month, though individual estimates varied widely, according to consensus figures provided by Briefing.com. Census hiring helped boost the March report, adding 48,000 to the total, but that sum was lighter than many analysts had anticipated. Some estimates called for as much as 100,000 census workers to be hired during the month.

The March upswing also stands in stark contrast to a year ago when nonfarm payrolls plunged over 700,000 in a single month.

The new report also revised previous months to reflect an even stronger trend. February nonfarm payrolls, which originally showed a loss of 36,000 jobs, now reflect a loss of 14,000. The government had thought employers shed 26,000 jobs in January, though that tally was revised up to now reflect a gain of 14,000 jobs.

"This March jobs report with revisions is the clearest support for our sustained, albeit 'half speed,' economic recovery forecast that was vitally dependent on private industry hiring which is now finally underway," wrote Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial, in a release. He also highlighted the 123,000 increase in private industry employment.

Among the sectors, employers added 40,000 temporary help services jobs in March, while the health segment added another 27,000. Construction picked up 15,000 and manufacturing payrolls rose by 17,000, though the report also said financial services shed 21,000 jobs.

Doug Roberts, chief investment strategist at ChannelCapitalResearch.com, noted the monthly improvement. But he also remains concerned because a bulk of the gains were in temporary positions, both in the private sector and in census workers. Roberts is also awaiting the next two months to determine whether the growth has staying power.

"Basically it's the beginning of recovery, but the real question is how strong it's going to be," he said. "We're definitely experiencing a cyclical recovery in employment, but the real question is how sustainable is that when it's not government inspired."

While the positive print in March is a welcome change after months of job losses, and economists hope it represents the beginning of a trend, the report also makes some of the labor market's frailties clearer. The volume of long-term unemployed, or those who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more, increased to 6.5 million last month, meaning nearly half of all unemployed have been stuck without a job for that long. Average hourly earnings also edged lower by 0.1%. After including job-seekers too discouraged to continue looking and part-timers looking for full-time positions, the nation's "unofficial" unemployment rate rose to 16.9% in the month.

Since the beginning of the recession, the Labor Department estimates that more than 8 million jobs have been lost.

"Until we get clarity out of Washington, I don't think you're going to see any meaningful hiring in the U.S. because we don't know what the financial reform is going to be. We don't know what the cost of insurance is going to be. We don't know what taxes are going to be. Why would one want to hire?" said Neil Hennessy, portfolio manager at Hennessy Funds, before the report's release. "You're seeing things pick up a little bit but I don't think you're going to see unemployment get below 7.5% again."

On Wednesday, investors turned skittish after a separate report from

Automatic Data Processing

(ADP) - Get Report

said private sector employers shed 23,000 jobs from their payrolls last month.

But other recent data, such as the

Philadelphia Federal Reserve's

regional manufacturing report and

initial jobless claims figures, suggested the labor market is stabilizing.

-- Written by Sung Moss in New York