The nation's payrolls expanded by 162,000 jobs in March, the largest monthly gain in three years, the government said Friday.
It marked only the third time in the last 27 months that the nation has added jobs. Despite the gains, the nation's jobless rate remained stubbornly high at 9.7 percent.
Among the winners last month was Randy Smith, 43, of Germantown, back at work at Allied Tube & Conduit Corp. in Northeast Philadelphia, which added another shift. Allied laid him off in August 2008, and Smith, a machine operator, had been unable to find another job during the recession.
"We're going to go out this weekend to celebrate," Smith said, the perfect illustration of what employment means to the economy.
"It was a good Friday for the job market," said economist Joel Naroff in Holland, Bucks County. "The private sector is finally hiring rather than cutting workers."
Still out of work, though, is Paul Turnbull, 53, of Huntingdon Valley, a laid-off banker and financial officer with 37 years of experience. He's part of the reason the employment rate has remained stalled since January, which is when Turnbull lost his job.
"I'm scared about this economy," he said. "I really am."
Worried about how he's going to send his son to college in the fall, Turnbull said: "I've never been unemployed in my life."
Turnbull's sector, financial activities, down 21,000 jobs in March, was one of a small minority that shed workers last month, along with the information sector, which lost 12,000 jobs.
The federal government did its part to hire, bringing on 48,000 temporary workers for the 2010 census. But employment also rose in nearly every private sector - up 17,000 in manufacturing, 14,900 in retail, and even 15,000 in construction, which has been nailed over the last two years because of the collapse in the housing market.
Other good news from Friday's Bureau of Labor Statistics report: The average workweek increased by six minutes, an indicator of future hiring. Factory overtime also rose, as did temporary hiring, another positive sign.
Even so, the economy remains in a deep job hole, with more than 15 million Americans unemployed and with the average length of employment lasting more than 27 weeks.
"We're basically standing still, and we need to do a lot better," said John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. Dodds said it was important for Congress to extend unemployment benefits.
The latest federal extension expires Monday.
"The danger with these numbers is that [legislators] will say: 'It's OK now. We can wait.' But we can't wait," he said. "We need to take steps to protect people while the jobs are coming back."
It will be a long road. Most economists believe the nation needs to generate 150,000 new jobs a month simply to keep up with increases in the working population. So, just to stay even, the economy would have needed to add 4.2 million jobs since the start of the recession in December 2007.
Instead, it has lost 8.4 million jobs, for a net shortfall of 12.6 million.
Those kinds of numbers will keep the unemployment rate high, probably above 9 percent through this year, according to President Obama and the Federal Reserve.
Analysts expect the economy to expand at a roughly 3 percent pace in the current January-to-March quarter.
That's about half the 5.6 percent pace seen in the final quarter of last year. Normally, growth in the 3 percent range would be considered respectable. But the nation is emerging from the worst recession since the 1930s. Growth needs to be in the 5 percent range or higher to quickly drive down the unemployment rate.
But the job gain in March was a start. "It's very consistent with what we are hearing from our clients," said Rudi Karsan, chief executive of Kenexa Inc., a Wayne company that designs workforce software for recruiting, among other applications.
"I think it will remain positive for the next six months," he said.
His firm conducts employment-confidence surveys around the world, and there is, he said, a sense of global optimism. "That usually correlates with hiring."
In the region, "we continue to have marginal improvement in the business," said David Shabot, managing partner of Korn/Ferry International's recruiting office in Philadelphia. "There seems to be less hesitancy on employers to shoot the gun to hire senior executives," he said.
Shabot predicts future weakness in health-care hiring as providers sort out the effects of the new insurance-overhaul legislation. "When you really peel back the onion, no one is sure how that's going to work."
From his vantage point, Frank Giampietro, manager of the Towers Watson human-resources consulting office in Philadelphia, also sees cautious optimism.
"I don't think we've seen the end of reductions in workforces," he said. "It's a better market than we've seen, but we have a long, long way to go."
Contact staff writer Jane M.
Von Bergen at 215-854-2769
The Associated Press contributed information
to this article.