WASHINGTON — U.S. employers added just 88,000 jobs in March, the fewest in nine months and a sharp retreat after a period of strong hiring. The slowdown is a reminder that the job market's path back to full health will be uneven.
The Labor Department said Friday that the unemployment rate dipped to 7.6 percent from 7.7 percent. While that is the lowest rate in four years, it fell last month only because more people stopped looking for work. The government counts people as unemployed only if they are actively looking for a job.
The percentage of Americans working or looking for jobs fell to 63.3 percent in March, the lowest in nearly 34 years.
For-hire trucking lost 6,900 jobs, offsetting a 5,700 gain in February.
However, Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations, immediately sounded a note of caution.
“These numbers are highly volatile, meaning they are subject to large revisions, so you can’t read too much into March just yet and I always thought especially compared with our employment numbers that the Labor Department increases over the last year seemed high,” Costello said, noting that the Labor Department did go back and revised down January and February 2013. “Volumes simply weren’t increasing enough to show the kind of gains in employment that the Labor Department has been reporting. I’m not surprised if we see a pause or even a drop like in March. Bottom line truck freight volumes (tonnage – revised – and likely loads, fell in February.”
March tonnage data is not available yet and “thus freight levels are not supporting additional hiring.”
Costello said the March decline was the largest decrease since May 2009, a time when the entire U.S. economy was in the midst of a downturn.
Stock futures fell after the jobs report was released Friday.
The weakness in March may signal that some companies were worried last month about steep government spending cuts that began on March 1.
March's job gains were half the pace of the previous six months, when the economy added an average of 196,000 jobs a month. The drop raises fears that the economy could slow after a showing signs of strengthening over the winter.
In fact, the government said hiring was even stronger over the previous two months than estimated last month. February's job gains were revised to 268,000, up from 236,000. January job growth was 148,000, up from 119,000.
Several industries cut back sharply on hiring in March. Retailers cut 24,000 jobs after averaging 32,000 in the previous three months. Manufacturers cut 3,000 jobs after adding 19,000 the previous month. Financial services shed 2,000.
Economists say the decline in the work force reflects several trends: many of those out of work become discouraged and give up on their job hunts. And as the population ages, more people are retiring.
Most economists are predicting the economy strengthened from January through March, helped by the pickup in hiring, a sustained recovery in housing and a more resilient consumer. Consumers stepped up purchases in February and January, even after Social Security taxes increased this year.
Still the higher taxes have reduced paychecks. And many economists say $85 billion in automatic government spending cuts will slow growth in the spring and summer.
Mark Vitner, an economist at Wells Fargo Securities, expects that the economy expanded at a 3.2 percent annual rate in the first quarter. But he forecasts growth will slow to a 2 percent pace in the second quarter, and then rebound after the impact of the government spending cuts fades.
Economists expect the spending reductions will shave half a percentage point off economic growth this year. Many federal workers will experience pay cuts. And government contractors will likely cut jobs. That could also drag down overall monthly hiring.
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