WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. labor market emerged surprisingly strong from the severe winter, with employers hiring at a brisk pace and the jobless rate holding near a five-year low.
Nonfarm payrolls increased by 192,000 jobs last month after rising by 197,000 in February, the Labor Department said on Friday. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 6.7 percent even though Americans flooded the labor market to hunt for work.
"This is a nice number, one of those Goldilocks numbers that is decent but not so good that it gets fears going about interest rates or the economy growing too quickly," said Peter Tuz, president of Chase Investment Counsel in Charlottesville, Virginia.
U.S. stocks traded modestly higher, prices for U.S. Treasury debt rose and the dollar was higher against a broad basket of currencies.
The pace of hiring in March was close to Wall Street's expectations, but the count for the prior two months was revised to show 37,000 more jobs were created than previously reported.
The government's survey of employers also found Americans were working longer hours, while the smaller survey of households from which the unemployment rate is derived showed a much larger surge in employment. That jump was met by a rise in the number of people entering the labor force, a show of confidence in the jobs market.
The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, hit a six-month high of 63.2 percent. An even broader gauge of labor market health, the percentage of working-age Americans with a job, reached its highest level since the summer of 2009.
With payrolls and the workweek both rising, a measure of total work effort jumped by the most in more than seven years, suggesting the economy was beginning to accelerate.
"It looks like the party goes on," said Rick Meckler, president of LibertyView Capital Management in Jersey City, New Jersey.
An unusually brutal winter slammed the economy at the end of 2013 and the start of this year. Growth was further undercut by efforts by businesses to trim inventories, the expiration of long-term jobless benefits and cuts to food stamps.
But data ranging from manufacturing and services sector activity to automobile sales have signaled strength as the first quarter ended. The jobs data did the same.
RANKS OF LONG-TERM JOBLESS THIN
The economy's return to a steady pace of job gains should comfort the Federal Reserve as it scales back its bond-buying stimulus program. However, the still-high level of unemployment also should bolster its resolve to keep overnight interest rates near zero for a while.
Fed Chair Janet Yellen has pointed to the unusually large number of Americans who are either suffering a long spell of unemployment or who are working part-time because they are unable to find full-time work as reasons to maintain an extraordinarily easy monetary policy.
The number of Americans looking for work for at least six months fell by about 100,000 to 3.7 million in March, but the ranks of Americans working part-time for economic reasons rose modestly.
Some economists had argued a recent rise in earnings might signal a tightening in the jobs market that the Fed might want to monitor closely. However, average hourly earnings for private employers fell back in March, as did a narrower gauge that had been rising more swiftly.
The private sector accounted for all the employment gains in March, with the government sector adding no jobs. The private sector has now recouped all the jobs lost during the 2007-2009 recession.
Manufacturing payrolls fell 1,000, breaking seven months of gains. Factory job growth has been slowing since surging in November. But with auto sales accelerating sharply in March, hiring could rebound in the months ahead.
Construction employment increased by 19,000. It was the third consecutive month of job gains for the sector and occurred despite the housing market's struggles to climb out of a soft patch.