WASHINGTON - A streak of robust job growth came to a halt in March, signaling that U.S. employers may have grown cautious in a fragile economy.
The gain of 88,000 jobs was the smallest in nine months. Even a decline in unemployment to a four-year low of 7.6 percent was nothing to cheer: It fell only because more people stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed.
The weak jobs report Friday from the Labor Department caught analysts by surprise and served as a reminder that the economy is still recovering slowly nearly four years after the Great Recession ended.
This March 29, photo, shows a help wanted sign in front of a restaurant in Richmond, Va. The U.S. economy has enjoyed a four-month stretch of robust job gains, and on Friday, the government will signal whether that trend endured into March. U.S. employers added just 88,000 jobs in March, the fewest in nine months and a sharp retreat after a period of strong hiring. The slowdown is a reminder that the job market's path back to health will be uneven.
"This is not a good report through and through," Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at brokerage firm BTIG, said in a note to clients.
March's job gain was less than half the average of 196,000 jobs in the previous six months. This could be the fourth straight year that the economy and hiring have shown strength early in the year, only to weaken afterward. Some economists say weak hiring may persist into summer before rebounding by fall.
The percentage of working-age Americans with a job or looking for one fell to 63.3 percent in March, the lowest such figure in nearly 34 years.
Stocks plummeted after the report but then narrowed their losses later in the day. The Dow Jones industrial average closed down about 41 points. Broader indexes also declined.
The Labor Department uses a survey of mostly large businesses and government agencies to determine how many jobs are added or lost each month. That's the survey that produced the gain of 88,000 jobs for March.
The government uses a separate survey of households to calculate the unemployment rate. It counted 290,000 fewer people as unemployed - not because they found a job but because they stopped looking for one. That's why the unemployment rate fell.
The percentage of working-age adults with a job or looking for one is a figure that economists call the participation rate. At 63.3 percent, it's the lowest since 1979. Normally during an economic recovery, an expanding economy lures job seekers back into the labor market. This time, many have stayed on the sidelines, and more have joined them.
Longer-term trends have helped keep the participation rate down. The vast generation of baby boomers has begun to retire. The share of men 20 and older in the labor force has dropped as manufacturing has shrunk.
The share of women working or looking for work, after expanding from the early 1950s through the mid-1990s, has plateaued. Fewer teenagers are working. And some who have left the job market are getting by on government aid, particularly Social Security's program for the disabled.
Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, said the labor force participation among those ages 25 to 54 - "prime age" workers - has dropped to 81.1 percent. It hasn't been lower since 1984.