Unemployment Rate Unchanged But Jobs Added

Non-farm payrolls rose in March for only the second time since the start of the recession, the Labor Department reported Friday, but the unemployment rate held steady at 9.7 percent.

Speaking at a plant that builds state-of-the-art batteries in Charlotte, N.C., President Obama called the hailed the report, calling it the "best news we've seen on the job front in more than two years."

"We've finally added a substantial number of jobs rather than losing a substantial number," he said.

The addition of 162,000 jobs was the best labor report in three years, but temporary hiring for the U.S. Census and a rebound from February's snowstorms accounted for a substantial portion of the increase. The increase still fell short of most the expectations of most analysts, who had expected the figure to be around 190,000.

In a statement, the White House offered its usual note of cautious optimism over the numbers, saying it welcomed the numbers but that "the American labor market remains severely distressed."

Speaking Friday to NPR's All Things Considered, Christina Romer, the chair of the Council on Economic Advisers, said fears of a "double-dip" recession were all but over, saying "we're in pretty good shape."

But the White House economist acknowledged that the current 9.7 percent unemployment rate was "terrible" and that it was unlikely to drop significantly by the end of the year.

"I would be anticipating it ticking down a little bit," she said, "but if you don't get ... robust growth, it is going to hang in that (plus-9 percent) range."

Romer's comments highlight the political sensitivity to the unemployment numbers. Without significant rehiring, Americans are likely to remain pessimistic about the economy and that could cause a backlash for Democrats at the midterm congressional elections in November.

Despite falling short of expectations, the report "is really good news," said Brian Wesbury of First Trust in Chicago.

"It's a great employment report. It's the final turning point for a recovering economy," he told NPR.

Economist Hugh Johnson of Johnson Illington Advisors said the time had come when "you can say with some confidence that we are adding jobs to payrolls."

He said after subtracting census workers, the economy added "about 114,000 jobs on the plus side."

"That's a really solid number and it's very encouraging," Johnson told NPR.

But sustainable jobs growth depends on a steadily expanding economy. University of Maryland economist Peter Morici said the GDP would need to consistently grow at more than 4 percent to bring down the unemployment rate to 6 percent over the next three years.

Morici said that 5.6 percent GDP posted at the end of 2009 "reflected accounting adjustments," while "sustainable growth [comprising] demand by private consumers, businesses for expansion and government" was up only 2 percent.

Manufacturing added 17,000 jobs, while the financial, insurance and information technology sectors all shed jobs.

The U.S. economy appears to have emerged last summer from its worst recession since the 1930s, but the labor market has lagged far behind as employers have been reluctant to add new workers.

The jobs added include 48,000 temporary workers hired for the census and an unknown number of hires that were bumped forward from February because of the massive snowstorms in the east. Private employers added 123,000 jobs.

Meanwhile, more Americans were working part-time for economic reasons. When those numbers are added to the people who have simply given up looking for work, the "underemployment" rate ticked up to 16.9 percent from 16.8 percent.

The Labor Department said there were approximately 1 million such "discouraged workers" in March, up from 309,000 a year ago. Economists are looking for that figure to begin turning around as the overall economy improves.

"That's one thing you expect to see when the labor market is improving is that people come off of the sidelines and start to re-enter the labor force because it seems like their prospects are better," said Alan Levenson, of T. Rowe Price in Baltimore.

Temporary work also increased by 40,000 jobs. Health care and manufacturing also posted some gains.

The figures for total non-farm payroll were revised for January, going from a net loss of 26,000 jobs in that month to a gain of 14,000. February was also revised from a loss of 14,000 to a gain of 36,000.

"We've had employment up for the last five months with the revisions we got to this morning's data and the direction seems to be higher," Levenson told NPR.

The high unemployment has helped employers hold down wages. The report showed average hourly earnings fell by 2 cents to $22.47.

The latest jobs data follow a report earlier this week that showed consumers are increasing their spending and manufacturing activity is growing at its fastest pace in more than five years.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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