Over the past 12 months, hiring had averaged 169,000 new jobs per month February's strong number was also revised upward so the weak March statistic suggested a very rapid slowdown and eclipsed a slight decline in the unemployment rate, 0.1 of a percentage point, to 7.6 percent.
Mark Zandi, chief economist for forecaster Moody' Analytics, said the job market faces still more challenges in the months ahead, citing both government budget cuts and the impact of health care legislation.
"The weak March job gain presages weaker job gains this spring and summer," he said.
That's very likely to be the case, even allowing for the impact in March of unusually cold weather, Zandi said.
One month does not make a trend, but the March report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics was nonetheless jarring.
"This is an extremely troubling labor market report, given how strongly stocks have rallied, and how much expectations have been lifted with optimism around the consumer and housing. This report calls this whole thesis into question," said Scott Anderson, chief economist for Bank of the West in San Francisco. "The negative impact of the (budget) sequester is readily apparent in these numbers, and we can expect more economic difficulty and job loss in the months ahead."
The budget sequester took effect on March 1 and cut $85 billion in federal spending throughout the federal government, with the exception of Congress and its staff. The Defense Department plans furloughs for its civilian labor force in April, and the prospect of another $100 billion in cuts scheduled to begin on Oct. 1 absent a budget deal have dampened spending by businesses and consumers, many of whose jobs depend directly or indirectly on government or government purchasing.
The White House blamed the sequester for Friday's weak jobs report and warned it is adding uncertainty about the year ahead.
"Now is not the time for Washington to impose more self-inflicted wounds on the economy," Alan Krueger, head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement.
Krueger noted that Friday's jobs report was the first since the sequester took effect and that neutral observers have projected that 750,000 fewer jobs will be created because of it, adding that "the recovery was gaining traction before sequestration took effect, these arbitrary and unnecessary cuts to government services will be a headwind in the months to come, and will cut key investments in the nation's future competitiveness."
Republicans saw it differently.
"The president's policies continue to make it harder for Americans to find work. Hundreds of thousands fled the workforce last month and unemployment remains far above what the Obama administration promised when it enacted its 'stimulus' spending plan," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement.
Boehner was referring to the Labor Department's finding that 496,000 people had stopped seeking work in March. That decline, rather than robust hiring, was largely responsible for the small drop in the unemployment rate, which is a comparison of those out of work to the number of those with jobs or looking for one.
Within the numbers, there were some bright spots. Professional and business services, a broad category made up mostly of better-paying white-collar jobs, led all sectors with 51,000 new jobs in March. Within the category, temporary help services, usually a harbinger of future full-time hiring, posted 20,000 new jobs.
The health care sector, which has continued to add workers even in the worst of times, grew by another 23,000 jobs. And the hard-hit construction sector added another 18,000 jobs in a down month, prompting hopes that the moribund housing market is slowly coming back to life.
But manufacturing, which had been a bright spot in late 2011 and early 2012, saw employment shrink by 3,000 jobs last month.
"The sector has added 77,000 net new workers over the past 12 months. Over that time frame, there were 1.9 million nonfarm payroll workers hired, implying that manufacturers created just 4 percent of all of the net new jobs since March 2012," Chad Moutray, chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers, wrote in his Shopfloor.org blog. "That really illustrates how uncertainty and weak global demand have impacted a sector that had before last year been providing outsized growth for output and employment."
Leading the job decliners was the retail sector, which shed about 24,000 jobs, and economists think that extended cold snap last month influenced this number. Government hiring shrunk by another 7,000 jobs in March, a continuation of what's been an ongoing slide since 2011. Federal government hiring fell by 14,000 but it was offset by about 9,000 new state education jobs.
What the jobs report reveals about U.S. population
Here are some details about how the job market fared for different groups last month, with unemployment rates for:
(Numbers in percentages) March 2013 Feb. 2013 March 2012
White • 6.7 6.8 7.3
Black • 13.3 13.8 14.0
Hispanic • 9.2 9.6 10.3
Asian • 5.0 6.1 6.2
Adult men • 6.9 7.1 7.7
Adult women • 7.0 7.0 7.4
Teenagers • 24.2 25.1 25.0
20-24 years old : 13.3 13.1 13.2
25-54 years old: 6.4 6.5 7.0
55 and over • 5.5 5.8 6.2
Veterans of Iraq/Afghanistan • 9.2 9.4 10.3
No high school diploma • 11.1 11.2 12.6
High school graduate • 7.6 7.9 8.0
Some college • 6.4 6.7 7.5
College graduates • 3.8 3.8 4.2
Duration of Unemployment
Average length (weeks) • 37.1 36.9 39.5
Jobless 6 months or more (percent) • 39.6 40.2 42.2
Source: Labor Department
March unemployment, by sector
Professional and business services, up 51,000.
Manufacturing, down 3,000.
Leisure and hospitality, up 17,000.
Health care, up 23,400.
Construction, up 18,000.
Temporary help services, up 20,300.
Transportation and warehousing, down 2,800.
Retail, down 24,100.
Financial services, down 2,000.
Government jobs, down 7,000.
Although employment numbers for March won't be out for several weeks, the state's jobs engine roared in February, as growth jumped 4 percent, compared with the same period in 2012 the highest year-over-year increase since June 2007.