By  on April 9, 2007

WASHINGTON — Hiring at apparel retailers helped push total U.S. job growth last month to a seasonally adjusted 180,000 new positions, more than economists anticipated and the biggest pickup since December.

Department stores added 11,600 workers to payrolls for a total of 1.6 million, as employment at apparel and accessories stores rose by 1,400 to 1.4 million, according to the latest Labor De­partment report. The retail sector added a total of 35,900 jobs in March.

Pressured by increased competition from low-cost imports and a technology driven productivity boost in recent years, U.S. apparel and textile companies continued to post declines. Textile mills trimmed the workforce by 2,000 to 177,600, as textile product mills took 800 people off payrolls to employ 156,500. Apparel producers trimmed employment by 1,600 to 224,400.

Retailers might have been waiting for somewhat warmer weather before hiring.

"In March, we saw a dramatic improvement in the weather conditions and that brought the hiring," said Richard Yamarone, chief economist at Argus Research Corp. "That trend's going to probably continue throughout the summer. The nation's essentially running at full employment and if we're running at full employment, we're going to be spending."

Average weekly earnings rose to a seasonally adjusted $583.76 last month, up from $580.01 in February. The nation's unemployment rate dipped to 4.4 percent from 4.5 percent in February, marking the second-straight monthly drop.

The overall employment boost is good for stores and consumer spending, since people are more comfortable buying nonessential fashion goods when jobs are plentiful.

Consumer spending has propped up the economy in recent months, especially as the housing market has dropped off and many homeowners have been unable to keep up with payments on their adjustable rate mortgages.

As read in the gross domestic product, the U.S. economy expanded by 2.5 percent in the fourth quarter, an acceleration from 2 percent growth during the third quarter.

James Smith, director of the Center for Business Forecasting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, described March as "a fabulous month for employment" and "significantly stronger" than projected.

The country added 50,000 more jobs last month then economists were generally expecting. Still, Smith said the economy could cool off."We have all the classic signs of an impending recession: housing in the dumper, vehicle sales in the dumper, business investment in the dumper, retail sales flat," he said.

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