WASHINGTON - America’s payrolls grew by 146,000 in January, a sluggish pace suggesting companies are reluctant to bulk up their work forces and highlighting the challenges faced by jobseekers.
The unemployment rate fell as people left the job market.
The newest employment snapshot, released by the Labor Department on Friday, showed improvements in the job market still coming slowly despite the fact that the economic expansion has become more firmly entrenched.
President Bush’s first term in office ended up showing a net gains in payroll jobs. From January 2001 to January 2005, the economy generated a net gain of 119,000 jobs. That allows Bush to escape being the first president since Herbert Hoover to have a net loss of jobs on his watch, a forecast by Democrats throughout the 2004 presidential campaign.
Companies, keeping a close eye on profit margins, are still showing caution in hiring as they cope with high energy bills and soaring health care costs for workers, economists said.
‘‘The economy is recovering, but it is still difficult for people looking for a job to find work,’’ said Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Banc of America Capital Management.
The overall civilian unemployment rate declined to 5.2 percent in January, from 5.4 percent in December, as people left the job market for any number of reasons.
January’s jobless rate was the lowest since September 2001.
Meanwhile, the share of the U.S. population working or actively seeking a job dropped in January to 65.8 percent, the lowest reading since June 1988.
The 146,000 gain in payrolls in January fell short of economists’ forecasts for an increase of around 200,000. Jobs gains for December came in at 133,000, down from an initial estimate of 157,000.
‘‘The labor market climate has yet to fully defrost,’’ said Ken Mayland of ClearView Economics.
January’s job gain pushed total payrolls to 132.57 million.
That was just above the level when payroll employment peaked in February 2001, the month before the economy fell into recession.