Economists also cautioned against reading too much into a one-month slowdown in hiring.
Friday’s report also showed hiring was stronger in January and February than previously estimated. January job growth was revised up from 119,000 to 148,000. February was revised from 236,000 to 268,000.
Those revised totals suggest that some hiring might have again occurred earlier in the year than usual. Job gains have averaged 168,000 in the past three months, close to the trend of the past two years.
The Fed has said it plans to keep short-term interest rates at record lows at least until unemployment falls to 6.5 percent — and Chairman Ben Bernanke has said a 6.5 percent rate is a threshold, not a ‘‘trigger,’’ for any rate increase. The Fed wants to see sustained improvement in the job market.
Several industries cut back sharply on hiring. Retailers cut 24,000 jobs, manufacturers 3,000 jobs.
Some economists said retailers might have held back on hiring in part because March was colder than normal. That likely meant that Americans bought fewer spring clothes and less garden equipment.
Fred Whyte, president of Stihl Inc., which makes chainsaws, lawn trimmers and other equipment, said the Virginia Beach, Va.-based company has benefited from the housing recovery and is looking to fill about 130 jobs, including engineers, machinists and software programmers.
With home sales rising, more people are willing to spend money to spruce up their yards, Whyte said. Commercial developers are spending more on landscaping.
But Whyte said the company has heard complaints from retailers that cold weather in March was holding down sales.
The oil and gas industry has been adding jobs fast over the past several years but cut jobs in March for the first time in 2½ years. Oil drilling and exploration is booming, but low natural gas prices over the last year have made natural gas drilling in some areas unprofitable.
In March, average hourly pay rose a penny, the smallest gain in five months. Average pay is just 1.8 percent higher than a year earlier, trailing the pace of inflation, which rose 2 percent in the past 12 months.
Most analysts think the economy strengthened from January through March, helped by the pickup in hiring, a sustained housing recovery and steady consumer spending. Consumers stepped up purchases in January and February, even after Social Security taxes rose this year.
At the same time, some small businesses say they've grown more cautious about hiring. The government spending cuts could cut into sales at companies with federal contracts and at small retailers located near government facilities. And small business owners worry about increased health insurance costs next year, when the government’s health care overhaul is fully implemented.
As federal agencies and contractors cut back in coming months, Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Global Insight, expects job growth to average 100,000 to 150,000 a month, down from an average 212,000 from December through February. He expects hiring to pick up after mid-year.
‘‘The good news,’’ Behravesh said, ‘‘is that this is happening at a time when the private economy is gaining momentum.’’
AP Business Writers Jonathan Fahey and Joyce M. Rosenberg in New York contributed to this report.