WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — The U.S. created the fewest new jobs in March in 15 months, a downshift in hiring that offers the first clear evidence that the sizzling pace of employment gains has slackened.
The economy generated just 126,000 new jobs last month, marking the smallest gain since the end of 2013, the Labor Department reported Friday. What’s more, employment gains for the first two months of the year were reduced by a combined 69,000.
The result: The increase in hiring in the first three months of 2015 has slowed dramatically to a 197,000 pace from 289,000 in the fourth quarter.
The unemployment rate, meanwhile, was unchanged at 5.5% in March.
While most economists expected job creation to slow a bit in March, few expected such a steep drop. The disappointing report is sure to reignite debate over whether it’s just a passing phase triggered by harsh winter weather, a now-ended port strike and other temporary factors or whether a broader economic slowdown is underway.
About the only good news in the March jobs report was an increase in worker pay. Average hourly wages rose a solid 0.3% in March, though how much U.S. employees get paid hasn’t shown much change despite strong gains in hiring over the past year. The increase in wages over the past 12 month was 2.1%.
Year-over-year increases have stuck to a tight range of 1.9% to 2.2% for the past three years. Wage gains have averaged about 2% since 2010, just two-third as fast as they normally grow.
The amount of time people worked each week, meanwhile, slipped 0.1 hours to 34.5 hours after hovering at a post-recession high for months.
The labor-force participation rate fell a tick in March to 62.7%, matching the lowest level in 37 years.
In February, the government cut its estimate of how many new jobs were created to 264,000 from 295,000. January’s gain was trimmed to 201,000 from 239,000.