Mark Lennihan / AP

Job growth stumbles as labor force shrinks to record low

While job growth was less than half that of February, wage growth ticked up slightly

U.S. employers added the fewest number of jobs in more than a year in March, the latest sign of weakness in the economy, while a record number of Americans are out of the labor force, according to the new employment numbers released by the Department of Labor on Friday.

Nonfarm payrolls — goods, construction and manufacturing companies — rose 126,000 last month, less than half February's pace and the smallest gain since December 2013, the Labor Department said Friday. The jobless rate held at a more than six and a half-year low of 5.5 percent.

That amounted to 8.6 million unemployed Americans actively seeking work. Unemployment rates among black Americans were more than double that of whites, at 10.1 percent compared to 4.7 percent, the report said.

Meanwhile, more than 93 million were described by the report as "not in the labor force" in March, compared to just over 91 million in the same month in 2014. This is the first time the number of Americans out of the labor force has exceeded 93 million, according to Labor Department records.

From February to March the workforce shrunk, with rates of those able to work dropping from 62.8 percent to 62.7 percent — matching a 36-year low. The size of the labor force has been shrinking for some time, due in part to the retirement of millions of baby boomers.

"The report confirms the emerging narrative of slowing growth momentum seen in the other economic indicators," Millan Mulraine, deputy chief economist at TD Securities in New York, said.

The weakness was concentrated in the goods-producing sector, which has been hurt by a strong dollar and lower crude oil prices. Leisure and hospitality also saw a sharp slowdown in jobs growth, suggesting harsh winter weather could have dragged on hiring.

The feeble increase in payrolls ended 12 straight months of job gains above 200,000 — the longest streak since 1994. In addition, data for January and February were revised to show 69,000 fewer jobs created than previously reported, giving the report an even weaker tone.

The sharp oil price drop has curtailed U.S. drilling activity, with payrolls in the mining sector falling 11,000 reflecting ongoing weakness in oil and gas extraction. Energy producers have idled half of their rigs since October.

There was, however, some good news in the report.

Average hourly earnings increased 0.3 percent. Even so, that only lifted the year-on-year gain to 2.1 percent, in the same tepid range that earnings growth has held to for several years. With Walmart and McDonald's recently announcing pay increases for their hourly workers, wage growth could gain traction in the months ahead. 

A harsh winter and a now-settled labor dispute at normally busy West Coast ports have also weighed on activity, as has softer global demand. Bad weather is estimated to have lopped off as much a seven-tenths of a percentage point from first-quarter growth.

In a sign that cold weather could have undercut job growth, the average work week fell to 34.5 hours, the lowest since September, from 34.6 in February. About 182,000 people said they could not get work because of inclement weather, slightly above the historical average of 141,000.

"It is possible that the colder-than-normal weather slowed hiring activity," said Lewis Alexander, chief economist at Nomura Securities International in New York.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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