Will March be the first month of 2010 that we see employment growth? We'll know tomorrow. Ever since November's small blip of net job gains, hiring has failed to outweigh firing. In February, the U.S. economy lost 36,000 jobs, though the prevailing unemployment rate remained flat at January's measure of 9.7%. How do you think the percentage changed in March? Vote below!

It won't be easy to predict March unemployment. Many economists have been expecting the shrinking job losses to move positive in the early part of 2010, but so far that hasn't been realized. We are also approaching the time of year when seasonally adjusted and unadjusted estimates begin to converge, meaning that either the adjusted rate will increase or the unadjusted rate will decline.

Expectations for March had been positive. But the month's ADP employment data released (.pdf) yesterday dampened those hopes. It showed 23,000 jobs lost -- a shock to economists who expected a gain of 40,000. March's decline was almost equal to ADP's February loss of 24,000 -- which the report also revised down from 20,000.

Weekly jobless claims paint a slightly more optimistic picture, however. Reported this morning, the week ending March 27th saw 439,000 new requests for unemployment benefits. That's 6,000 fewer than the week prior and the fewest in about a year and a half, according to Reuters. Continuing claims also declined by 6,000. This isn't a huge change, but it's a move in the right direction.

Unlike in February, there are no weather-related excuses for March. Snowstorms wouldn't have prevented hiring. With the holidays well in the economy's rear-view by the first quarter's end, most firms planning on hiring in early 2010 should have done so by the end of March. So the month's number is also more significant than those seen in January of February.

Actual job growth would be incredibly good news and could indicate that the U.S. economy is finally beginning to see a labor recovery. If more jobs were lost, however, that would just reinforce how painfully slow unemployment's decline will be.

Last month, readers had a pretty weak showing at correctly guessing that the unemployment rate would remain flat at 9.7%. Only 9% got it right. Meanwhile a whopping 80% thought the rate would rise. What do you think happened in March?



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