The mostly positive snapshot of the nation's employment climate, released by the Labor Department on Friday, showed that companies ramped up hiring and paid workers more. That's good news for employees and jobseekers, and bodes well for the national economy, too, which is suffering a sluggish spell and a painful housing slump.
"For most people, the job market is still hitting on a lot of cylinders, especially for people who are willing to upgrade their skills. It is not leaving a large number of people stranded," said John Challenger, chief of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an employment research firm. "But there are pockets where people are having a difficult time," he said.
Those include people looking for work at factories, where jobs in March were cut for the ninth straight month. Makers of autos, furniture, clothing and textiles all eliminated jobs last month. Another soft spot: residential construction, a casualty of the housing slump.
However, there were many more job winners than losers. Construction jobs led the way, especially for contractors and for commercial building. Retailers, health care providers, educational services and leisure and hospitality companies were among those boosting their payrolls.
"Businesses have a very good appetite for hiring workers. The job market is sturdy," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com. "It is a good time to be looking for a job, particularly if you have skills and education."
Against that backdrop, unemployment fell from 4.5 percent in February to 4.4 percent in March. That matched the rate in October - the lowest in five years.
Here, too, there were winners and losers.
The unemployment rate for Hispanics dropped to 5.1 percent, a three-month low, while the rate for blacks climbed to 8.3 percent, a three-month high. The rate for women held steady at 3.8 percent. The rate for men declined to 4 percent.
The economy ended up adding 32,000 more jobs in January and February combined than the government estimated a month ago. Economists found that encouraging in assessing the health of the job market and the overall economy.
Workers' paychecks grew last month.
Average hourly earnings climbed to $17.22, up from $16.55 a year earlier. That represented a solid 4 percent increase.
Wage growth is good for workers and supports consumer spending, which is indispensable to the economy's good health. But a rapid pickup - if prolonged and not blunted by other economic forces - can raise fears about inflation.
Spiraling inflation would whittle away any wage gains, hurting workers' wallets. The Federal Reserve's biggest concern is that inflation could flare up.
Even so, many economists predict the Fed will keep interest rates where they are for much of this year.
In a separate report, the Fed said consumers borrowed less freely in February; they boosted their use of credit at a 1.5 percent pace, the slowest in four months. The moderation reflected less demand for auto, educational and other loans.
The new employment figures come as President Bush continues to cope with a lackluster job-approval rating of 35 percent from the American public, according to a new AP-Ipsos poll. On the economy, just 38 percent approve of the president's stewardship while 60 percent disapprove, the poll shows.
Tapping into that discontent, Democrats are championing policies to close the gap between low- and high-income workers and make it easier for workers to form unions against company wishes. They're also taking a harder stance regarding the administration's free-trade deals.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, in an interview with The Associated Press, said the latest employment figures are a testament to the administration's economic policies and to the drive of the U.S. work force.
"These numbers show we are competing successfully in a very competitive global economy," he said. Addressing the weakness in factory employment, Gutierrez said: "Any job lost is painful. ... We need to stay focused on job training and preparing ourselves" for an even more competitive climate in the future.
In March, there were some challenges for jobseekers, too. For one thing, the job hunt got longer.
The average time that the 6.7 million unemployed people spent searching for jobs was 17.3 weeks in March, compared with 16.4 weeks in February.
"Opportunities are expanding, but it doesn't mean everybody's job search is easy," said Challenger. "But people who really want to look hard and stay at it are finding work."
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