The U.S. economy added 126,000 jobs in March, falling short of economists' estimate of 245,000 and the unemployment rate held steady at 5.5 percent, the latest sign the labor market might be slowing down, the Labor Department reported Friday.
The increase in employment marked the first time the monthly job growth was below the key 200,000 benchmark, which was typically associated with a strengthening job market, over the past year.
Last month, employment continued to trend up in professional and business services, health care and retail trade, while the mining, manufacturing and construction sectors lost jobs, the department said.
The mining and logging industry, which includes oil and gas extraction, shed 11,000 workers in March and has lost 30,000 jobs so far in 2015 due to the recent decline in oil prices. The manufacturing and construction sectors also cut 1,000 jobs in the month, respectively.
After revisions, employment gains in January and February were 69,000 less than previously reported. Job gains have averaged 197, 000 per month in the first quarter of 2015, down from an average of 324,000 in the fourth quarter of 2014, according to the report.
The slowing job market might reflect the weak economic growth in early 2015, which was attributed to severe cold weather, inventory adjustments and the strengthening dollar.
"We are seeing some weakness in the incoming data on economic activity. That could be concerns about whether or not that would stall improvement in the labor market," David Stockton, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told Xinhua in a recent interview.
Wage growth for U.S. workers remained modest. Average hourly earnings rose 7 cents to 24.86 U.S. dollars in March and were up only 2.1 percent over the past 12 months, which suggests underlying slack remains in the labor market.
The latest worse-than-expected job report might make the Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, to be cautious in deciding when to start raising interest rates. The central bank has kept benchmark short-term interest rates near zero since December 2008.
Fed Chair Janet Yellen said last week she expected an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate to be warranted later this year, as long as the labor market continues to improve.
Stockton predicted the central bank is more likely to wait until September to start hiking interest rates, as Yellen signaled a little bit desired to see more data to confirm the improvement of the U.S. economy.
Fed officials will make better judgment by September "whether the early part of the year's weakness in the data was just temporary or whether it signaled more serious slowdown," he said.