WASHINGTON — Employers hired at a brisk pace last month and ramped up the hours their workers put in on the job, the strongest signals yet the economy was breaking free of its winter doldrums.
At the same time, the jobless rate held near a five-year low even as Americans poured into the labor market to hunt for work, another upbeat signal of the economy’s health.
“It is strong enough to indicate the economy is back on track, but not so robust that the Federal Reserve would have to start thinking about actually raising rates,” said Joel Naroff, head of Naroff Economic Advisers in Holland, Pa.
Nonfarm payrolls increased by 192,000 jobs last month after rising by 197,000 in February, the Labor Department said on Friday. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 6.7 percent.
The government’s closely watched report showed private sector employment finally regaining its prerecession peak as the economy accelerated. It added to data ranging from manufacturing and services sector activity to automobile sales that have signaled strength as the first quarter ended.
An unusually brutal winter slammed the economy at the end of 2013 and the start of this year. Growth was further undercut by efforts by businesses to trim inventories, the expiration of long-term jobless benefits and cuts to food stamps.
First-quarter growth estimates range as low as a 0.6 percent annual rate. But economists think growth in the second quarter will be near 3 percent.
“The report suggests the first quarter ended with improving momentum and that momentum will likely carry over into second quarter GDP growth,” said Robert Hughes, a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington, Mass.
The pace of hiring in March was close to Wall Street’s expectations, but the count for the prior two months was revised to show 37,000 more jobs were created than previously reported.
With payrolls and the workweek both rising, a measure of total work effort jumped by the most in more than seven years.
Job growth had fallen off sharply in December. While the pace of hiring found by the government’s latest survey of employers was a welcome relief, it nevertheless suggested the economy was simply regaining its modest growth track.
The smaller household survey used to calculate the jobless rate, however, showed a much larger surge in employment. That jump was met by a rise in the number of people entering the labor force, a show of confidence in the jobs market.
The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, hit a six-month high of 63.2 percent. An even broader gauge of labor market health, the percentage of working-age Americans with a job, reached its highest level since the summer of 2009.