WASHINGTON — The U.S. job market took a breather in March after its best hiring stretch since the Great Recession.
Employers added 120,000 jobs last month — half the December-February pace and well short of the 210,000 economists were expecting. The unemployment rate fell from 8.3 percent in February to 8.2 percent, the lowest since January 2009, but that was largely because many Americans stopped looking for work.
Still, few economists expect hiring to fizzle in spring and summer, as it did the past two years. And they blamed seasonal factors for much of Friday's disappointing report from the Labor Department.
"We don't think this is the start of another spring dip in labor market conditions," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist with Capital Economics.
The report was also closely watched in political circles. If employers retreat on hiring, consumers could lose confidence in the economy and potentially dim President Barack Obama's re-election hopes.
Ashworth and other economists cited the weather for the latest jobs report. A warm January and February allowed companies to hire workers for outdoor jobs a few weeks earlier than usual, effectively stealing jobs from March. It partially explains a 34,000-job drop in retail hiring and a 7,000 drop in construction jobs.
"Our winter didn't really exist," said Alan Amdahl, who runs his own construction company in Sioux Falls, S.D. "It's just incredible. People didn't hibernate."
Economists also say the numbers can bounce around from month to month. Consistently creating 200,000 jobs a month is tough. The economy hasn't put together four straight months of 200,000 or more new jobs since early 2000.
Economists are still encouraged by the recent hiring trend: The economy has generated an average 212,000 jobs a month from January through March.
Anthony Chan, chief economist at JP Morgan Wealth Management, noted strong growth among businesses that are especially sensitive to the economy's health. Hotels and restaurants hired 39,000 workers. Manufacturers added 37,000.
The factory hiring is especially welcome. Expanding factories create more jobs at the mines that produce raw materials, in warehouses and at trucking companies and at utilities that generate power.
Government jobs, which declined by an average 22,000 a month last year, fell just 1,000 in March. An improving economy is generating tax revenue and easing budget problems at city halls and statehouses across the country.
The March slowdown brings back painful memories of what happened in mid-2010 and 2011, when the economy lost momentum and job growth sputtered.
The job market had been on a recent roll. From December through February, the country added 734,000 jobs. The only three-month stretch that was better since the recession ended was March through May 2010, when the government was hiring tens of thousands of temporary workers for the census.
Companies across the country are hiring:
— Nimble Storage, a young information technology company in San Jose, Calif., is rapidly adding staff to keep up with demand for its data storage devices. Anup Singh, the company's chief financial officer, says the explosive growth of data and the need for companies to store, analyze and deliver it is driving rapid expansion. Nimble Storage has added 30 employees so far this year, bringing its workforce to 175. It expects to hire 70 more by the end of the year. They are hiring engineers, sales people and customer support staff.
— Landry & Kling Cruise Event Services in Miami, which arranges events on cruise ships, has added two workers this year and plans to hire two more. Sales are strong.
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