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U.S. adds just 20,000 jobs as hiring slows, though unemployment falls slightly

U.S. adds just 20,000 jobs as hiring slows, though unemployment falls slightly
Vvisitors to the Pittsburgh veterans job fair meet with recruiters at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on March 7, 2019. The February U.S. jobs report showed hiring has slowed. Most analysts expect growth to rebound in the April-June quarter. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Hiring tumbled in February, with U.S. employers adding just 20,000 jobs, the smallest monthly gain in nearly a year and a half. The slowdown in hiring, though, might have been depressed by harsh winter weather and the partial shutdown of the government.

Last month's weak gain came after employers had added a blockbuster 311,000 jobs in January, the most in nearly a year. Over the past three months, job growth has averaged a solid 186,000, enough to lower the unemployment rate over time.

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And despite the tepid pace of hiring in February, the government's monthly jobs report Friday included some positive signs: Average hourly pay last month rose 3.4 percent from a year earlier — the sharpest year-over-year increase in a decade. The unemployment rate also fell to 3.8 percent, near the lowest level in five decades, from 4 percent in January.

Unseasonably cold weather, which affects such industries as construction and restaurants, afflicted some areas of the country in February. And the 35-day government shutdown that ended in late January likely affected the calculation of job growth.

Still, the hiring pullback comes amid signs that growth is slowing because of a weaker global economy, a trade war between the United States and China and signs of caution among consumers. Those factors have led many economists to forecast weaker growth in the first three months of this year.

Sluggish hiring and job cuts in February were widespread across industries. Construction cut 31,000 jobs, the most in more than five years. Manufacturing added just 4,000 jobs. Retailers cut 6,100. Job growth in a category that includes mostly restaurants and hotels were unchanged last month after adding a huge 89,000 gain in January.

Most analysts expect businesses to keep hiring and growth to rebound in the April-June quarter. It will be harder than usual, though, to get a precise read on the economy because many data reports are still delayed by the partial shutdown of the government.

In the meantime, there are cautionary signs. Consumer confidence fell sharply in January, held back by the shutdown and by a steep fall in stock prices in December. And Americans spent less over the winter holidays, with consumer spending falling in December by the most in five years.

Home sales fell last year and price gains are slowing after the average rate on a 30-year mortgage reached nearly 5 percent last year. Sales of new homes also cratered late last year before picking up in December. And U.S. businesses have cut their orders for equipment and machinery for the past two months, a sign that they are uncertain about their customer demand.

The economy is forecast to be slowing to an annual growth rate of just 1 percent in the first three months of this year, down from 2.6 percent in the October-December quarter. Growth reached nearly 3 percent for all of last year, the strongest pace since 2015.

Still, economists expect a rebound in the April-June quarter, and there are already signs of one: Consumer confidence rose in February along with the stock market.

And more Americans signed contracts to buy homes in January, propelled by lower mortgage rates. Analysts have forecast that annual growth will top 2 percent next quarter.

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