US employers added just 88,000 jobs in March, the fewest in nine months and a sharp retreat after some weeks of strong hiring.

The slowdown is a reminder that the US job market's path back to full health will be uneven.

The US Labor Department said today that the unemployment rate dipped to 7.6% from 7.7%.

While that is the lowest rate in four years, it fell last month only because more people stopped looking for work.

The US government counts people as unemployed only if they are actively looking for a job.

The percentage of Americans working or looking for jobs fell to 63.3% in March, the lowest in nearly 34 years.

The weakness in March may signal that some companies were worried last month about steep government spending cuts that began at the start of the month.

March's job gains were half the pace of the previous six months, when the economy added an average of 196,000 jobs a month. The drop raises fears that the economy could slow after a showing signs of strengthening over the winter.

In fact, the government said hiring was even stronger over the previous two months than estimated last month. February's job gains were revised to 268,000, up from 236,000. January job growth was 148,000, up from 119,000.

Several industries cut back sharply on hiring in March. Retailers cut 24,000 jobs after averaging 32,000 in the previous three months. Manufacturers cut 3,000 jobs after adding 19,000 the previous month. Financial services shed 2,000.

Economists said the decline in the workforce reflects several trends - many of those out of work become discouraged and give up on their job hunts. And as the population ages, more people are retiring in the US.

Most economists are predicting that the economy strengthened from January to March, helped by the pickup in hiring, a sustained recovery in housing and a more resilient consumer. Consumers stepped up purchases in February and January, even after Social Security taxes increased this year.

Still the higher taxes have reduced paychecks. And many economists say $85 billion in automatic government spending cuts will slow growth in the spring and summer.

Economists expect the spending reductions will shave half a percentage point off economic growth this year. Many federal workers will experience pay cuts, while government contractors will also likely cut jobs.