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Washington — Employers added a modest 120,000 new jobs in March, ending a streak of solid job gains in the prior three months and raising fresh questions about the strength of the economy and hiring momentum in coming months.
The nation's jobless rate inched down to 8.2% from 8.3% in February, the Labor Department said Friday, but that came amid a shrinking labor force in which more people dropped out of the job market and thus weren't counted as unemployed.
Analysts were expecting growth of about 210,000 jobs in March, after gains of more than 220,000 in each of the prior three months. Some of those earlier gains may have been influenced by the unseasonably warm weather, so the latest slowdown could have been in part due to a kind of payback for the inflated payrolls in the winter.
Retailers shed 34,000 jobs last month, most of them at department stores and other general merchandise outlets. Most other sectors added jobs in March, but at a slower pace.
On the positive side, manufacturing continued to steam ahead, adding a robust 37,000 new positions over the month. And government payrolls, which fell sharply last year, were essentially flat.
Still, after the winter acceleration in new hires, the latest job growth numbers disappointed analysts and clouded the outlook for an economy that has generally been improving. Friday's report showed that the total hours worked by all employees, considered a leading indicator, dipped lower last month.
"Employers spent a great deal of time and attention reducing costs over the past few years and apparently do not yet see enough solid evidence to sharply reverse course on hiring," said Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board, an employer-support research organization. "This could presage more disappointing job counts later this spring."