WASHINGTON - U.S. employers added jobs at a solid pace in March and hired more in January and February than previously thought. Friday's government report sent a reassuring signal that the economy withstood a harsh winter that had slowed growth.
The economy gained 192,000 jobs in March, the Labor Department said Friday, slightly below February's revised total of 197,000. Employers added a combined 37,000 more jobs in January and February than previously estimated.
The unemployment rate was unchanged at 6.7 percent. But a half-million Americans started looking for work last month, and most of them found jobs. The increase in job-seekers is a sign that they were more optimistic about their prospects.
"We're back to where we were before the weather got bad," said John Canally, economist at LPL Financial. "It's a nice, even report that suggests the labor market is expanding."
March's job gain nearly matched last year's average monthly total, suggesting that the job market has mostly recovered from the previous months' severe winter weather.
Stocks rose modestly soon after trading began, and the yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.76 percent from 2.8 percent late Thursday.
The March report included one milestone: More than six years after the Great Recession began, private employers have finally regained all the jobs lost to the recession. The employers shed 8.8 million jobs in the downturn; they've since hired 8.9 million. Still, the population has grown over that time, leaving the unemployment rate elevated.
The proportion of Americans in the labor force - those either working or seeking work - has rebounded this year after steady declines since the recession officially ended in June 2009. Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, noted that the labor force increased by 1.5 million in the January-March quarter after shrinking by 500,000 last year.
Encouragingly, the percentage of Americans age 16 or older who were working reached 58.9 percent in March -- its highest point since 2009.
Americans worked an average of 34.5 hours last month, up from 34.3 in February, which was held back by the severe weather. The increase, though small, means many Americans received larger weekly paychecks.
Yet average hourly pay slipped a penny to $24.30 after a big 10-cent gain in February. That was a disappointment for many economists, who thought February's sharp increase might mark the start of a trend. Average hourly wages have risen 2.1 percent in the past year. Inflation has risen 1.1 percent in that time.
Freezing temperatures and heavy snowstorms this winter closed factories, slowed home sales and kept consumers away from shopping malls. Hiring averaged 178,000 in the first three months of this year, down from 198,000 a month in the final three months of 2013.
Still, many economists expect hiring to average about 200,000 jobs a month for the rest of the year. Hiring at that pace should lower the unemployment rate and support steady growth.
Other recent economic data suggest that the economy is picking up from the winter freeze.
Auto sales jumped 6 percent last month to 1.5 million, the most since November. That was a sign that Americans remain willing to spend on big purchases.
And surveys by the Institute for Supply Management, a group of purchasing managers, showed that both manufacturing and service companies expanded at a faster pace in March. Factories cranked out more goods and received slightly more orders, a good sign for future production. Service companies also received more orders.
Home sales and construction, however, have been weak in recent months. Sales of existing homes have fallen in six out of the past seven months. Cold weather has likely caused some of the decline. But higher mortgage rates, rising prices and a limited supply of available homes have also held back sales.
Many economists think growth slowed to a 1.5 percent to 2 percent annual rate in the January-March quarter, down from a 2.6 percent pace in last year's fourth quarter. But most also forecast that steady hiring and less drag from government spending cuts should lift growth to nearly a 3 percent annual pace for the rest of the year.