The United States added just 20,000 jobs in February — way below expectations of a 180,000 gain, and a sign that the job market might be beginning to cool.

It's a steep drop from the 311,000 jobs employers added in January. Despite the anemic gain, job growth over the past three months has averaged a solid 186,000 — enough to lower the unemployment rate to 3.8 percent, the Labor Department reported Friday. That's near the lowest jobless level in five decades and down from 4 percent in January.

Ohio, meanwhile, added 55,000 jobs over the past year — about half as much as first thought — according to Ohio Job and Family Services data released Friday that included revisions to employment data. 

Initial reports throughout 2018 showed Ohio routinely posting big gains when it came to job creation. At one point, the state's job-creation numbers trailed only Texas, California and Florida, and the reports showed Ohio had enough gains to break the mark set in 2000 for total employment.

Now, those revisions, based on more complete data collected by the state, show that wasn't the case.

The 55,000 jobs gained include 20,300 jobs added in January of this year, led by 7,300 jobs in private education and health care, 6,500 jobs in the category that includes retail and wholesale trade, 4,200 jobs in leisure and hospitality.

Despite the job gains for January, the state unemployment rate edged up to 4.7 percent from 4.6 percent in December, and the number of unemployed workers rose by 2,000 to 269,000.

Monthly employment data can be volatile. During the nearly decade-long recovery from the Great Recession, job growth has sometimes plunged in a single month — to 15,000 in May 2016, for example, and to 18,000 in September 2017 — only to rebound to healthy levels in the months that followed.

And February's increase in average pay suggests that businesses are stepping up their efforts to attract and keep workers. The year-over-year increase of 3.4 percent in February is up from a corresponding figure of just 2.6 percent a year ago.

The Labor Department report is made up of two surveys, one of households that sets the unemployment rate and one of employers that shows how many jobs were added or lost during the month. Sometimes, the surveys move in different directions.

The lackluster February figure comes as growth is slowing. Economic growth abroad has weakened, and the partial government shutdown and ongoing trade tensions appear to be weighing on consumer spending.

Hiring was slow in every industry except health care and white-collar businesses. Construction lost 31,000 jobs and leisure and hospitality, which is normally a driver of growth, was unchanged. Some experts say this could be the result of brutal weather in February, including a deep freeze in much of the Midwest.

Wages grew 3.4 percent in the past year, the best annual gain since April 2009, when the United States was in the Great Recession. Wages are now growing well above the cost of living. Inflation has been just 1.6 percent in the past year, according to the Commerce Department.

"If the party was over, we wouldn't see those wages coming in so strong," said Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist at S&P. "A lot of the weakness in hiring looks like it was due to seasonal factors like very cold weather."

The unemployment rate for Americans with who didn't graduate from high school fell from 5.3 percent in February, the lowest level since the Labor Department began tracking that statistic in the early 1990s. Bovino says it's another sign that the job market is still strong enough that people on the sidelines are searching for jobs and finding work again after years of struggle.

But some are concerned that the U.S. economy may be catching a cold as Europe, China and much of the developing world struggles.

"The reality is the economy is slowing. The question now is whether it's slowing for reasons associated with the trade war or because the rest of the world is slowing," said Torsten Slok, chief international economist at Deutsche Bank. He called the February jobs number "slightly worrisome."

The current labor market is widely viewed as the best since the start of the 2000s, most economists and business leaders say. There is so much demand for highly-skilled workers with specialized data and computer skills that employers are sometimes hiring and poaching workers when they don't have an actual job opening for them.

"We know there will be demand for them soon," said Martin Fleming, chief economist at IBM, who said the company has been hiring MBAs and people coming out of PhD programs even when there isn't necessarily a job posting for them because it's a "highly competitive landscape" between IBM, Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc. for top young talent.

 

The Washington Post, The Columbus Dispatch and The Associated Press contributed to this report.