US gains 244,000 new jobs in April. How strong is the economy?

The number of new jobs outpaced expectations and was higher than in the previous month. But the unemployment rate edged up to 9 percent from 8.8 percent in March.

Tony Dejak/AP
In this May 3 photo, Justin Miller (l.) talks with Leah Chanthapanya (r.) at a job fair, in Independence, Ohio. Chanthapanya is looking for a customer service or administrative position. Employers added more than 200,000 jobs in April for the third straight month, the biggest hiring spree in five years. But the unemployment rate rose to 9 percent in part because some people resumed looking for work.

America posted solid job growth in April, handily outpacing forecasts but not fully dispelling doubts about the economy's soundness.

The United States added 244,000 jobs for the month, higher than the previous month and stronger than average expectation of 185,000 new jobs. The gains stretched throughout the private-sector economy, including at factories, retail shops, nursing homes, and architecture firms.

But the solid number, while helping the US stock market to make modest gains in morning trading, doesn't answer lingering questions about where the economy will head as the year progresses and consumers wrestle with high gasoline prices and a still-weak housing market.

Even within the jobs report, issued Friday by the Labor Department, signals were mixed. The official unemployment rate edged up to 9 percent, from 8.8 percent in March.

The discrepancy occurred because the numbers in the monthly labor report stem from two surveys: one of employers and one of ordinary people in households. In a given report, the findings of those two surveys may not match. April was a month when fewer people said they were employed in the household survey, even as the so-called payroll report showed 244,000 in gains.

Over time, the two surveys paint a similar picture of a job market that hit its post-recession bottom near the end of 2009. Since then the number of US jobs has been rising, although nearly 14 million people are still officially unemployed.

Some labor-market experts see signs that the economy has self-sustaining momentum.

“This morning’s employment report marks the third consecutive month in which payrolls saw a net gain exceeding 200,000, with jobs being added across several industries," said John Challenger of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in a written analysis. "We are finally seeing steady job creation."

The job report for April, he said, was also positive in that the number of long-term unemployed fell by nearly 300,000 from the prior month. As of now, about 5.8 million Americans report being jobless for 27 weeks or more.

Other positive signs: The number who are working part time but would rather have full-time work fell by 167,000 (to a total of 8.6 million), and average hourly earnings rose 5 cents, to $19.37 per hour.

Many forecasts call for slow improvement – with a few more years of above-normal unemployment. But that muddle-along scenario could worsen, they say, if the economy faced a setback such as an additional jump in oil prices or cooling growth in Europe or Asia.

Some economists are even mentioning the possibility of a dip back into recession. For one thing, many households are strapped by high debts or the now-high cost at the gas pump. In its latest "U.S. Spending Monitor" poll of US consumers, Discover Financial Services reports that just 34 percent of respondents rate their finances as good or excellent, while 64 percent say their finances are fair or poor.

When asked if their finances were getting better or worse, 49 percent said their finances are worsening – up 1 point from Discover's March poll.

This comes as the Federal Reserve is preparing to downshift a policy called quantitative easing, designed to provide extra support for the economy. And Congress appears to be shifting from an official policy of fiscal stimulus (through tax cuts and extra spending) to one focused on less government spending.

It's normal for policymakers to retreat from such stimulus efforts as a recovery gains traction.

"Our forecast anticipates that the current soft patch [in economic growth] represents another bump in the road on a prolonged and subdued recovery, rather than a more serious breakdown," economist Nigel Gault of IHS Global Insight wrote in a Friday report.

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