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U.S. job market takes a break in March following a months-long hiring binge

The U.S. job market took a breather in March after its best hiring stretch since the Great Recession.

Employers added 120,000 jobs last month -- half the December-February pace and well short of the 210,000 economists were expecting. The unemployment rate fell from 8.3 percent in February to 8.2 percent, the lowest since January 2009, but that was largely because many Americans stopped looking for work.

Still, few economists expect hiring to fizzle in spring and summer, as it did the past two years. And they blamed seasonal factors for much of Friday's disappointing report from the Labor Department.

"We don't think this is the start of another spring dip in labor market conditions," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist with Capital Economics.

The report was also closely watched in political circles. If employers retreat on hiring, consumers could lose confidence in the economy and potentially dim President Obama's re-election hopes.

Ashworth and other economists cited the weather for the latest jobs report. A warm January and February allowed construction companies and other businesses that work outdoors to hire workers a few weeks earlier than usual, effectively stealing jobs from March. It helps explain a 7,000-job drop in the construction industry.

Alan Amdahl, who has run his own construction company in Sioux Falls, S.D., for three decades, said a mild winter helped contribute to a flurry of new remodeling jobs. He started hiring in January.

"Our winter didn't really exist," he said. "It's just incredible. People didn't hibernate."

Economists also say the numbers can bounce around from month to month. Consistently creating 200,000 jobs a month is tough. The economy hasn't put together four straight months of 200,000 or more new jobs since early 2000.

Economists are still encouraged by the recent hiring trend: Each month from January through March has generated an average of 212,000 jobs.

Anthony Chan, chief economist at JP Morgan Wealth Management, noted strong growth among businesses that are sensitive to the economy's health. Hotels and restaurants hired 39,000 workers. Manufacturers added 37,000.