The U.S. economy added a stronger-than-expected 180,000 new jobs in March, largely because of a bounceback in construction hiring, and job growth was stronger in the two prior months than previously thought, the Labor Department said on Friday.

The intently awaited March employment report painted a stronger picture of the U.S. job market than anticipated and included a surprising decline in the unemployment rate to 4.4 percent from 4.5 percent in February.

It was the lowest monthly unemployment rate since last October, when it also was at 4.4 percent.

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Wall Street analysts had forecast that a more modest 120,000 jobs would be created last month and that the unemployment rate would tick upward to 4.6 percent rather than decline.

The government also revised up its estimate for jobs created in January and February - by 16,000 each month - to 162,000 and 113,000 respectively.

It said that there were 56,000 construction jobs added in March, a striking turnaround from February when 61,000 of these jobs were lost, some of them possibly due to cold weather. In addition, there were twice as many new retail jobs added in March - 35,900 versus 17,400 in February.

The relatively strong jobs report may help counter some other recent signs of economic weakness like soft durable goods orders that had led financial market participants to speculate the Federal Reserve might have to consider reducing interest rates at some point this year.

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