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Jobs Added, But Unemployment Rate Unchanged

Job seekers wait on line to attend a UJA-Federation of New York job fair on March 10, 2010 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Spencer Platt
Job seekers wait on line to attend a UJA-Federation of New York job fair on March 10, 2010 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

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.

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."

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.

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.