WASHINGTON — Employers in May added the fewest jobs in eight months, and the unemployment rate inched up to 9.1 percent. The weakening job market raised concerns about an economy hampered by gas prices and the Japanese nuclear disaster.
The key question is whether the meager 54,000 jobs added last month mark a temporary setback or are evidence of a more chronic problem. That total is far lower than the previous three months' average of 220,000 new jobs per month.
Private companies hired only 83,000 new workers in May — the fewest in nearly a year.
Stocks on Wall Street fell for the third straight day. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 94 points in the first hour of trading. Broader indexes also opened lower.
Local governments cut 28,000 jobs last month, the most since November. Nearly 18,000 of those jobs were in education.
Cities and counties have cut jobs for 22 straight months and have shed 446,000 positions since September 2008.
The anemic pace of job creation presents a huge challenge to President Barack Obama's re-election prospects next year. And it followed a string of disappointing economic data in the past month that suggest the economy is hitting a soft patch.
The manufacturing sector, a key driver of the economic recovery, grew at its slowest pace in 20 months in May. Home prices are still falling and reached their lowest level since 2002 in March.
Higher gas prices have left less money for consumers to spend on other purchases. And average wages aren't even keeping up with inflation. As a result, consumer spending, which fuels about 70 percent of the economy, is growing sluggishly.
Economists have said that most of the factors slowing the economy are temporary. But some are now concerned that the impact is greater than they first envisioned.
"Economic activity has clearly hit a soft patch," said Steven Wood, chief economist for Insight Economics. "The open question is whether this is temporary and will quickly reverse itself over the next couple of months or whether this is an adjustment to a slower permanent growth rate."
Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at HIS, called it a "pretty bad report. It's tempting to say it's an outlier, but I'm a little worried."
More people entered the work force in May. But most of the new entrants couldn't find work. That pushed the unemployment rate up from 9.0 percent in April. The number of unemployed rose to 13.9 million.
And the government revised the previous months' job totals to show 39,000 fewer jobs were created in March and April than first thought.
The weakness in hiring was widespread. Manufacturers cut 5,000 jobs, the first job loss in that sector in seven months. That included a drop of 3,400 jobs in the auto sector.
Car makers are cutting back on production because they are having a difficult time purchasing parts. Many auto parts, including some key electronic components, are manufactured in Japan and the March 11 earthquake in that country has disrupted supply chains.
Parts of the economy most dependent on consumer spending saw some of the steepest job losses. Retailers cut 8,500 positions, after adding 64,000 in April. And leisure and hospitality, which includes restaurants and hotels, cut 6,000 jobs. That came after they added an average of 43,000 in the previous three months.
There were some bright spots in May. Professional and business services added 44,000 new positions, most of them in accounting, information technology services, and management.
Still, the economy needs to generate at least 100,000 jobs each month just to keep up with population growth and prevent the unemployment rate from rising. And economists say the gains need to be at least double that total to drive down the rate.
About 8.5 million Americans worked part time, even though they would have preferred full-time jobs. Another 2.2 million have stopped looking in the past year. All told, the "under-employment" rate was 15.8 percent, down from 15.9 percent the previous month.