The survey showed a lack of qualified workers as the leading manufacturing headwind — 35 percent of respondents identified that problem — followed closely by legislative or regulatory pressures at 33 percent and lack of demand at 29 percent.
Factory orders rose 0.2 percent in February, which was the first increase since July, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. The climb was a welcome development for manufacturers struggling with disappointing economic growth in major trading partners like China, Europe and Japan.
Applications below 300,000 are generally consistent with solid monthly job gains. Layoffs have stayed close to historic lows, despite a pronounced economic slowdown in recent months.
The U.S. trade deficit plunged in February as both imports and exports sank, driven by a since-settled trade dispute and a global economic slowdown that has cut into oil prices and caused the dollar to rise in value.
The Institute for Supply Management, a trade group of purchasing managers, says its manufacturing index slipped to 51.5 in March from 52.9 in February. It was the fifth straight drop. Still, any reading above 50 signals expansion.
Beijing has cut interest rates twice since November to spur economic growth that fell to 7.3 percent in the final quarter of last year, fueling fears of a politically dangerous spike in job losses.
March sales were expected to be flat compared with last March. Car buying site TrueCar.com predicted total U.S. sales of 1.5 million vehicles in March, down less than 1 percent from a year ago.
Manufacturers shed 1,000 jobs in March, which likely reflects the twin drags of falling oil prices and a stronger dollar.
The March report from the National Association for Business Economics forecasts more hiring, a lower unemployment rate, a lower inflation rate and more growth in consumer spending in 2015.
Applications are a proxy for layoffs. The relatively low average shows that employers are holding onto workers and may increase hiring.
Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, blamed some of the weakness to the big plunge in energy prices, which has led to cutbacks in drilling plans by oil and gas companies.
The economy across the 19-country eurozone appears to be gaining momentum as a closely-watched survey Tuesday found business activity hit a near four-year high in March.
The numbers signaled a "slight deterioration" in Chinese manufacturing, said the report, which found decreases in sub-indexes for new orders, new export orders and employment.
The three indicators which subtracted from growth were weekly unemployment benefit applications, weekly manufacturing hours and the index for new orders tracked by the Institute for Supply Management.
Economists partly blame the strong dollar, which makes U.S. exports overseas more expensive. It also makes imports cheaper, potentially undercutting U.S. goods.
The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications for unemployment aid rose slightly by 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 291,000.
A widening trade deficit contributed to the slowdown in overall economic growth in the fourth quarter and is expected to be a drag on growth in 2015 as the stronger dollar makes American products less competitive on overseas markets.
The 7.3 percent surge in utility output reflected unusually cold weather in many parts of the country.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York said Monday that that its Empire State manufacturing index slipped to 6.9 in March from a reading of 7.8 in February.
The dollar is at its highest value of $1.05 against the euro in 12 years.
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