After a Winter of Strong Gains, Job Growth Ebbs

The country’s employers added a disappointing 120,000 jobs in March, about half the net gains posted in each of the preceding three months. The unemployment rate, which comes from a separate survey of households rather than employers, slipped to 8.2 percent, from 8.3 percent, as a smaller portion of the population looked for work.
Politicians seized on the data, with Mitt Romney, the front-runner in the Republican presidential nominating contest, characterizing the report as “weak and very troubling.” President Obama emphasized that employers had added more than 600,000 jobs in the last three months, but acknowledged the “ups and downs” in the jobs picture.
The slowdown suggests that employers remain cautious about hiring as they digest the impact of rising gas prices, especially on consumers, and as they face uncertainty about health care and pension costs.
Despite some indications, like falling unemployment claims, that the job market was finding its footing, anxieties have built in recent weeks about whether a stronger pace of recovery could be sustained.
The economic outlook abroad is worrisome. Global stock markets grew skittish this week as the ballooning debt and a weak bond offering in Spain raised the specter of a deepening slump in Europe. The United States stock market has also had several days of declines after a strong first-quarter performance. Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, has tried to temper expectations and noted in a speech last month that the “better jobs numbers seem somewhat out of sync with the overall pace of economic expansion.”
With the United States stock market closed for Good Friday, futures on the Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index dropped by more than 1 percent in limited trading.
The March pullback in hiring eerily repeats a pattern set in the last two years, when an apparent pickup in the winter was followed by a slowdown in the spring. The monthly snapshot of the job market from the Labor Department can reflect transitory factors, however, and is often revised. The job gains in February, for example, were revised up to 240,000 from the 227,000 initially reported. Seasonal factors may also be playing a role, after the unusually warm winter.
Economists suggested that the trend among employers to wring more work from fewer people continued to be a hallmark of this recovery.
“What we are seeing now is an agonizingly slow recovery in the job market,” said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group. “I believe what this reflects is this laser focus intensity that business leaders have nowadays to try to be able to increase production with less reliance on labor as a means to do so.”
Private sector companies added 121,000 jobs in March as governments shed 1,000 jobs, driven by layoffs in the postal system and at the local level.
Among industries, manufacturing continued its run as the stalwart of job growth, adding 37,000 jobs in March.
But economists cautioned that factories were unlikely to bring back a majority of the two million people who lost their jobs during the recession.
Rather, manufacturers are recalibrating. “In the worst of a downturn like this, they probably kicked too many people out the door,” said Cliff Waldman, senior economist at MAPI/the Manufacturers Alliance.  “And now even with modest growth they have to bring people back.”
Joel Long, chief executive of GSM Services, an air-conditioning installer and roofing contractor that also makes some of its parts in Gastonia, N.C., said he had five openings for sales staff, production workers and a project manager. His family-owned company, which employs about 130 people, is doing well enough to hire in part because “the competition has gone away,” he said.
Despite recent improvements in store sales, retailers shed nearly 34,000 jobs last month, a sign to some economists that the rapid incursion of e-commerce had hurt employment in the sector.