The figures come as surprise following yesterday's news that the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week to a four-year low.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has been warning for some time that the U.S.'s economic recovery remains fragile. Last month he said the recovery in the jobs market may be "out of sync" with the wider economy.
The jobs growth was fueled by private companies, which added 121,000 jobs in March, the labor department said. The government cut 1,000 jobs.
Women were disproportionately hit in this month's report. Male participation in the workforce was up 14,000 while female participation fell 177,000. Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board in New York, said the difference was largely due to layoffs in retail stores, where women make up much of the workforce. General merchandise stores lost 32,000 jobs last month.
"We were due for something like this," said Goldstein. He said seasonal factors like the mild winter had boosted previous reports and that we may now be in for a period of lower jobs growth. "I don't think we should be expecting 240,000 jobs a month but nor do I expect we will see 120,000 a month either," he said. Goldstein expects next months figures will be an improvement.
David Semmens, senior U.S. economist at Standard Chartered, said the figure served as a reminder that "the U.S. is not fully up and running again". He said the numbers had caught everyone off guard. The lowest estimate economists had before the figures were released was 175,000, he said. Even the fall in unemployment was negative. "This is just people leaving the labor force, which is not really a good thing," he said.
Mitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential candidate, this week accused the president of harming the U.S. economy by hiding his real intentions from voters. "With all the challenges the nation faces, this is not the time for President Obama's hide-and-seek campaign," he said.
The unemployment rate has now fallen again but remains an issue for Obama. It was 7.8% when he took office in January 2009 and peaked at 10% nine months later. It has now fallen to the lowest level in three years, but no president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has won re-election with unemployment above 7.2%.
Investors will have to wait until Monday to react to the news. U.S. stock markets were closed Friday for Easter and Passover.
The news comes ahead of another critical test for U.S. economic recovery. Companies start reporting their first quarter results next week. Analysts are expecting many to report a slow down in growth as Europe's continuing woes weigh on their business and the benefits of cost cutting reach their limits.
Alcoa, the aluminum producer, releases its figures on Tuesday, and Wall Street's JP Morgan follows on Friday. Both companies are seen as bellwethers of the wider economy and analysts are predicting both firms to report a decline in earnings.
Intellpuke: You can analyze these things to death, but the bottom line is that 120,000 more Americans now have jobs.
You can read this article by Guardian U.S. Business Correspondent Dominic Rushe, reporting from New York City. N.Y., in context here: