By  on April 2, 2010

WASHINGTON — The employment picture showed further signs of stabilizing last month, adding the most jobs in nearly three years, the Labor Department reported Friday.

Specialty clothing retailers joined the wave, expanding payrolls by 5,300 to employ 1.38 million, but department stores trimmed 600 jobs to employ 1.48 million.

“The trend is far better than we were seeing even through the end of last year,” said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics with Moody’s Economy.com.

Employers added 162,000 jobs to payrolls in March, the Labor Department said, and the nation’s unemployment rate stayed unchanged at 9.7 percent for the third consecutive month.

“We’re adding jobs, finally, which is very good news,” Hoyt said. “What we need is the transition from lost jobs to job gains big enough to drive unemployment down. We’re not there yet, but we’re making the transition.”

Analysts pointed out U.S. Census hires distorted some of the top-line employment figures and could continue to do so for the next couple of months.

“Until this month, the most that we could say was that it looked like job growth was about to turn the corner,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist with IHS Global Insight. “Now it seems to have done so. But it will be a long slog to bring down the unemployment rate.”

The private sector added 131,000 jobs in March, Gault noted, and 77,000 of them were temporary, but “that still implies 54,000 permanent jobs were added.”

“Job creation driven by temporary hires will not ease consumer angst, particularly for those struggling to find full-time employment,” said Sandy Kennedy, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “Workers are consumers and consumers are workers; the two are one in the same. Without jobs or job security, weak consumer spending will continue to hold back a robust recovery.”

In the manufacturing sector, textile mills that make apparel fabric cut 1,000 positions to employ 121,800. Textile product mills, which make home furnishing and industrial fabrics, eliminated 200 jobs to employ 121,800. Apparel manufacturers cut 200 jobs to employ 168,000.

“Today’s employment report shows continued signs of gradual labor market healing,” said Christina Romer, chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Despite those positive signs, the labor market is still “distressed,” she said. Since the recession began in December 2007, more than 8 million workers have lost their jobs.

Romer noted the report was the most positive in three years, but said, “There will likely be bumps in the road ahead. The monthly employment and unemployment numbers are volatile and subject to substantial revision.”

U.S. and European markets were closed Friday, but the S&P Retail Index, despite a 0.4 percent advance Thursday, finished the week down 0.6 percent at 451.61, ending a seven-week winning streak and reducing the pickup for the year to 9.9 percent. The major U.S. indices all gained for the week, led by the S&P 500’s 1 percent expansion to 1,178.10. It’s up 5.7 percent for the year, outpacing the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s 4.8 percent appreciation.

Among 172 fashion, beauty and retail issues monitored by WWD, 91 were up for the week, 75 were down and six were flat.

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