March jobs report: U.S. economy creates 120,000 new jobs

The U.S. economy added 120,000 new jobs in March, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Labor, and the official unemployment rate fell to 8.2%, down from the 8.3% reported in February.

In a month where gasoline prices were consistently above the $4 per gallon mark nationally, analysts were forecasting about 210,000 new jobs, with little change in the unemployment rate. However, the number of new jobs created was the lowest in five months.

The March report follows stronger jobs reports in January and February, when preliminary data indicated that more than 200,000 new jobs were created each month. The February report was revised to show a gain of 240,000 new jobs. Overall, revisions added only 4,000 more jobs in January and February combined.

In March, retail payrolls shrunk by 34,000, the biggest decline in that industry since October of 2009.

Service sector payrolls increased by 89,000 jobs in March, less than half the February gain of 211,000.

Professional and business service employment increased by 31,000 last month.

Labor force participation fell to 63.8%, down from the February mark of 63.9%, as 164,000 people dropped out of the workforce. The participation rate, which measures the share of working-age people in the labor force, had fallen to 63.7% in January, a 30-year low.

About 13 million people remain unemployed, including 5.5 million who have been out of work for more than six months.

The March jobs report could signal a stall in economic momentum. The U.S. Commerce Department reported last week that the economy expanded at a rate of 3% in the fourth quarter of 2011, but while that was an improvement over the 1.8% increase in the prior quarter, it occurred before the most recent surge in gasoline prices.

Although historically low interest rates started to creep up in recent weeks, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke has said interest rates would have to remain low until the labor market gains more traction.