New jobs slow; unemployment drops as work force shrinks

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The United States had another month of disappointing job growth in April.

The nation’s employers produced a net gain of 115,000 positions, after adding 154,000 in March, the Labor Department said Friday. April’s job growth was less than economists had been predicting.

The unemployment rate, which is based on a separate survey of American households, ticked down to 8.1 percent in April, from 8.2 percent. That may sound like good news, but the decline was not because more unemployed workers were hired; it was entirely because 342,000 workers dropped out of the labor force.

And with the face-off in the presidential race in clearer focus, each side was quick to put its own imprint on the figures.

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, immediately seized on the numbers, attributing the lackluster showing to President Obama’s policies. “We should be seeing numbers in the 500,000 jobs created per month,” he said. “This is way, way, way off from what should happen in a normal recovery.”

The White House accentuated the positive in the report, while acknowledging that it fell short of what was needed.

Speaking at a Virginia high school, where he went to discuss student loans, President Obama cited the “good news” that more than 4.2 million jobs had been created over the last 26 months, but added, “If we’re going to recover all the jobs that were lost during the recession and if we’re going to build a secure economy that strengthens the middle class, then we’re going to have to do more.”

The recent trajectory in the jobs numbers has not worked in the president’s favor.

“We had a run of great numbers earlier in the year, and then we get a clear softening in the last couple of months,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief United States economist at High Frequency Economics.

The slowdown, he said, could possibly be explained by unusually warm winter weather, which encouraged more companies to hire earlier in the year than they usually do. Higher gasoline prices may have played a role, too. “If it’s the gas price effect, it ought to reverse, since wholesale gas prices dropped sharply over the last few weeks,” Mr. Shepherdson said.

Analysts are also hopeful that April’s numbers will eventually be revised upward once the Labor Department receives more information from the companies it surveys. The last few months of data have already been reissued to show that job growth was stronger than first estimated.

“We have to reserve judgment until we get the final revisions on these numbers,” said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics. “I’m not trying to be Pollyannaish, but there is enough in this report to suggest that the economy isn’t necessarily slowing.”

American workers appear somewhat less optimistic — as evidenced by the numbers dropping out of the work force.

The share of working-age Americans who are in the labor force, meaning they are either working or actively looking for a job, is now at its lowest level since 1981 — when far fewer women were doing paid work. The share of men taking part in the labor force fell in April to 70 percent, the lowest figure since the Labor Department began collecting these data in 1948.

The decline in labor force participation is partly because baby boomers are hitting retirement age. But economists thought the wave of retirements would at least be offset by the number of workers rejoining the labor force as the economy improved.

“There were a lot of younger people who had gone back to school to get more education and training, and we thought we’d see more of them joining the work force now,” said Andrew Tilton, a senior economist at Goldman Sachs. Instead, the number of young people in the labor force fell. “May, June and July — the months when people are typically coming out of schooling — will be the big test.”

Friday’s report contained other discouraging news; the average workweek, for example, remained unchanged at 34.5 hours. A lengthening of the workweek might have suggested that employers were on the verge of hiring more employees, since they were already working their existing staff longer.

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