The U.S. added 162,000 jobs in March, the federal government said this morning. That's not quite as rosy as it sounds, but it's good enough to say that the long period of job losses is over, and we're heading back toward growth.
"The labor market has turned," Nigel Gault, an economist at IHS Global Insight, told me this morning. "We're starting to create jobs."
Despite the new jobs, the unemployment rate held steady at 9.7 percent. That may continue in the coming months. The unemployment rate only counts people who are actively looking for work, and as the economy improves, more people who don't have jobs will start looking for work again.
The labor picture has been slowly turning around for several months now. In the early part of 2009, the economy was shedding more than 700,000 jobs per month. The rate of job loss slowed toward the end of the year, and for the past few months the total number of jobs in the economy has remained largely static, with month-to-month changes hovering near zero.
This morning's headline number — 162,000 new jobs — is inflated for a few reasons. For one thing, the February jobs numbers were skewed artificially low, because the jobs survey happened right in the middle of the big snowstorms, which kept many people home from work. For another, the March numbers got a bump from the census, which hired more than 40,000 temporary workers during the month.
But even if you strip out those factors, the new numbers still show growth, Gault said. Between January and March, the private sector added 131,000 jobs, he said. (About 59 percent of those jobs were temporary.)
Manufacturing was particularly strong, with 17,000 new jobs in March, and 45,000 new jobs since the start of the year. That's typical for an economic recovery, when demand for manufactured goods is one of the first things to increase. "The firms that have slashed their inventories are now building them up," Gault said.
It may take some time for job growth to be significant enough to start driving down the unemployment rate, Gault said. But he, like many other economists, expects growth to continue. "We've turned the corner," he said.