The national economy did not add quite as many jobs as economists had expected in March. And while unemployment dipped, much of the decline was the result of more people dropping out of the labor force.
After three straight months of job growth averaging just under 250,000, the U.S. Department of Labor said Friday that 120,000 jobs were created in March.
That was at least 80,000 jobs below most analysts' expectations, although the unemployment rate fell to 8.2 percent from 8.3 percent in February.
The monthly jobless rate in Ohio dropped to 7.6 percent in February from 7.7 percent in the previous month. Ohio's March rate won't be released until later this month.
"This is a little bit of a negative surprise, but one month of data does not make a trend," said Bill Even, a labor economist at Miami University, referring to Friday's report. "I'm sure there are a lot of people who are disappointed with this, and we would not like to see this happen again next month."
The March numbers revealed a reversal of recent gains in the labor force, or the number of working-age people who are employed or actively looking for work.
Through the first two months of the year, the civilian labor force grew by 476,000, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. From February to March, that number fell by 164,000.
"That's a big enough change to move the unemployment rate around," Even said.
Hiring had begun to pick up as business improved and employers' filled new and open positions, adding more than 50,000 jobs in Ohio alone in the first two months of the year.
Nationally, planned layoffs fell to a 10-month low in March, and the number of people filing first-time claims for unemployment fell to a four-year low last week, according to two separate reports from the Labor Department and international placement firm, Challenger Gray & Christmas.
Friday's lackluster jobs numbers poured cold water on those reports, but it may not be the final say on job growth.
The numbers are notoriously volatile and subject to revision. Revisions added 4,000 new jobs to payrolls in January and February.
While the March numbers may be understating the job market's true strength, legitimate concerns about rising gas prices and slowing economic growth may also have led employers to exercise more caution in hiring last month.
Michael Hicks, a Ball State University economist, notes that in addition to consumer spending -- which has been cramped by high gas prices -- business growth and the demand for workers is also largely dependent on transportation costs, which have surged with the rising cost of fuel.
"The March numbers are half or less of what we'd seen in the preceding months," Hicks said. "Though a single month of data is not enough to draw broad inference, this has all the hallmarks of a repeat of last year when rising gas prices stalled the recovery."
The job market will have a direct impact on President Barack Obama's chances of winning a second term. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the likely Republican challenger, used Friday's jobs report to underscore his repeated claims that the president's policies have led to slow growth and high unemployment.
Closer to home, Romney supporters, including U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, lamented the fact that the unemployment rate remains well above what economists traditionally have considered a "normal" jobless rate of about 5 percent.
"The sad reality is that the unemployment rate hasn't remained over 8 percent for this long since the Great Depression," Portman stated. "Unfortunately, the Obama administration's approach of more regulation, more spending and a refusal to embrace long-term pro-growth measures has not given us the economic expansion we need."
The Obama campaign counters that Romney would reinstate policies that led to the recession, which began under the George W. Bush administration.
"It is critical that we continue to make smart investments that strengthen our economy and lay a foundation for long-term middle-class job growth so we can continue to dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began at the end of 2007," Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said in a press release from the White House.
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