U.S. hiring has slowed sharply with employers adding only 115,000 jobs in April. That's well below the 160,000 jobs economists were expecting. The modest numbers released Friday by the U.S. Labor Department suggest the U.S. recovery may be losing steam. The White House insists the nation is still moving in the right direction.
American employers eased up on hiring in April. But upward revisions to the job numbers in the previous two months, along with a decline in the number of people looking for work, brought the nation's unemployment rate to a three-year low of 8.1 percent. White House economic adviser Alan Krueger said the evidence suggests the economy continues to heal from the worst downturn since the Great Depression.
"The numbers as you know are very volatile. We're going to have ups and downs. That's the nature of the economic recoveries, but I think we are on a stronger path," said Krueger.
'The Street' is not impressed
Wall Street was not so forgiving. Stock futures fell sharply after the opening bell and oil prices dipped below $100 a barrel on fears the U.S. recovery may be losing momentum. At the current pace of hiring, economists say it could take years to bring unemployment numbers to near-normal levels of around 5 to 6 percent.
But Nobel prize-winning economist Edmund Phelps said it may be time to consider a new normal.
"We're not looking at an economy nearly as healthy as it was in the middle of the 90's. My seat-of-the-pants [intuitive] feeling is that the new normal is in the neighborhood of 7 percent," he said.
White House defends progress
President Barack Obama acknowledged that more needs to be done to put Americans back to work. But Friday on Fox News, Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney took the job numbers as an opportunity to attack the president's economic policies.
"We seem to be slowing down not speeding up. This is not progress; this is very disappointing," said Romney.
There are some bright spots. The construction trade says employment is up in nearly half of the country's major metropolitan areas.
"For the first time in five years it looks as if construction overall will be higher than it was in the previous year, but not every region of the country, not every segment of the industry is benefiting. It's a very spotty improvement," said Ken Simonson, chief economist at the Associated General Contractors of America.
Despite increased hiring in retail and professional services, the number of unemployed Americans remained virtually unchanged. About 12.5 million Americans are still looking for work - more than 5 million have been unemployed for six months or longer.