WASHINGTON - The unemployment rate fell to a two-year low of 8.8 percent in March and companies added workers at the fastest two-month pace since before the recession began.
The Labor Department reported Friday that the economy added 216,000 new jobs last month, offsetting layoffs by local governments. Factories, retailers, education, health care and an array of professional and financial services expanded payrolls.
The second straight month of brisk hiring is the latest sign that the economy is strengthening nearly two years after the recession ended.
Private employers, the backbone of the economy, drove nearly all of the gains. They added 230,000 jobs last month, on top of 240,000 in February. It was the first time private-sector hiring topped 200,000 in back-to-back months since 2006 more than a year before the recession started.
The unemployment rate dipped from 8.9 percent in February to 8.8 percent in March. The rate has fallen a full percentage point over the last four months, the sharpest drop since 1983.
Economists predict employers will add jobs at roughly the same pace for the rest of this year. That would generate about 2.5 million new positions. But that will make up only a small portion of the 7.5 million jobs that were wiped out during the recession.
And the economy faces other pitfalls. Local governments, wrestling with budget shortfalls, cut 15,000 workers last month and are expected to keep shedding jobs. Home prices are falling amid weak sales and a record number of foreclosures. Higher food and gas prices are leaving consumers with less disposable income to spend on other goods and services.
The number of unemployed people dipped to 13.5 million in March, still almost double since before the recession began in December 2007.
Including part-time workers who would rather be working full time, plus people who have given up looking altogether, the percentage of "underemployed" people dropped to 15.7 percent in March.