At long last, U.S. job market starts to look pretty good

AT LONG LAST, U.S. JOB MARKET STARTS TO LOOK PRETTY GOOD…. It seemed all but certain that the economy added jobs in April; the question was how many, and the extent to which the larger trend would be encouraging or discouraging.

With that in mind, the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics offered some very good news at a key moment this morning, with job totals exceeding expectations.

More confident employers stepped up job creation in April, expanding payrolls by 290,000, the most in four years. The jobless rate rose to 9.9 percent as people streamed back into the market looking for work.

The hiring of 66,000 temporary government workers to conduct the census helped overall payroll growth last month. However, private employers — the backbone of the economy — boosted jobs, too. They added a surprisingly strong 231,000 positions last month, also the most since March 2006, the Labor Department reported Friday.

The unemployment rate rose from 9.7 percent in March to 9.9 percent in April, mainly because 805,000 jobseekers — perhaps feeling better about their prospects – resumed their searches for work.

After a brutal recession, the economy has now added jobs for four consecutive months, and five of the last six months. April’s totals were easily the strongest since the start of the economic downturn in late 2007. [Update: April’s numbers were also the best month for job creation in the U.S. since March 2006 — more than four years ago.]

Also encouraging, the job numbers for February and March were revised upwards, showing an even healthier employment picture. While previous estimates showed 14,000 job losses in February, the revised total was a gain of 39,000. Likewise, March was revised from 162,000 to 230,000.

Yesterday, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) tried to talk down the expected job totals, insisting that the data would be skewed by Census-related hiring. Don’t believe it — 231,000 or the 290,000 came from the private sector.

What about the uptick in the unemployment rate? The measure can be a little tricky. There were plenty of months in late 2009 when the economy lost jobs, but the unemployment rate fell. In April, the economy added quite a few jobs, but the unemployment rate rose. How does this happen? The Washington Post had a helpful article about this recently.

As a reminder from last month, I’ve revamped the homemade chart I run on the first Friday of every month, showing monthly job losses since the start of the Great Recession. Now, the image makes a distinction — red columns point to monthly job totals under the Bush administration, while blue columns point to job totals under the Obama administration.

apriljobs.jpgNote: The chart has changed slightly from last month, in part to reflect revised numbers from February and March, and also because The Bureau of Labor Statistics recalculated all of 2009’s numbers earlier this year.