WASHINGTON — The nation's unemployment rate fell slightly to 7.2% in March, but the country showed signs of a weak industrial economy--particularly in oil, gas and manufacturing, the Labor Department said Friday.
The March jobless rate was essentially unchanged from the February rate of 7.3%. The rise between January and February was the sharpest increase in six years--jumping from 6.7%. The White House had said that hike was an "aberration" and would improve.
The figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the booming service industry continued to grow, while America's industrial sector eroded even further in March. About 40,000 jobs were lost in the manufacturing of durable goods. Another 30,000 jobs vanished in the mining industry.
The hard-hit mining industry is a classic example of the turmoil in the oil and gas extraction field, hit by declining prices and cutbacks in drilling and exploration. There are now only 900,000 mining workers--the lowest level since June, 1978.
In March, total manufacturing employment dropped by 130,000 jobs below the level of the previous year.
(California's jobless rate dipped in March to 6.9% from 7.2% the previous month, with most of the new jobs in the service industries. Los Angeles County's rate fell sharply, from 7.2% to 6%.)
The 7.2% figure shows that "last month's frightening jump upward was no fluke and indicates to me that there is precious little evidence that the economy is entering a boom," said Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.).
But White House spokesman Larry Speakes, in Santa Barbara, Calif., was more upbeat, contending that the data "reflects a smooth continuation of employment growth since June of 1985 and we expect a continued steady downward trend in the unemployment rate."
"Right now the economy seems to be caught in a gap between the bright outlook for the long term and the somewhat rocky outlook for the immediate term," said Arthur Levitt Jr., chairman of the American Stock Exchange.
"These figures emphasize that the so-called 'economic recovery' has been stalled since the unemployment rate has shown no real improvement in more than a year," said Murray Seeger of the AFL-CIO. "All of the hoopla and excitement about Wall Street financial speculation is not creating jobs."
Jerry Jasinowski, economist for the National Assn. of Manufacturers, a business lobbying group, said the figures "suggest that the economy has been weaker than earlier estimates."
"There is little likelihood of a major decline in unemployment now," Jasinowski said, suggesting that joblessness would not drop below 7% "before the middle of the year."
18.2% for Teen-Agers
The jobless rate for most categories of workers was about the same in March and February. The unemployment rate for adult men was 6.2%; it was 6.6% for adult women and 18.2% for teen-agers.
The jobless rate for Latinos, however, was 10.3% in March, a significant drop of 2 percentage points from February.
For both blacks and whites, the March figures remained relatively constant.
For whites, the March unemployment rate was 6.2%; for blacks it was 14.7%. For black teen-agers, the unemployment rate increased from 39.1% in February to 43.7% in March.
In March, 5.5 million people were forced to work part time for economic reasons, the Labor Department said. Many of those people used to work full time in the nation's hard-hit factories, it said.
Known as "economic part-timers," the workers cannot find full-time work and have found it difficult to improve their economic status because of the continued weakness in the manufacturing sector.
There was some good news, however. Factory hours increased slightly, edging up 0.1 of an hour in March after declining sharply in February. The growing service sector remained strong, highlighted by sizable employment increases in business and health services. There also was considerable strength in finance, insurance, real estate and wholesale trade.