"I would say that momentum is shifting. We're not in a freefall, and there are reasons to be optimistic going forward."

The total number of unemployed people in the US now stands at 13.7 million, up by six million over the past 12 months.

Barack Obama, the US president, said the figures were "sobering" but that the economy was beginning to show slow progress.

Obama said: "Although we have a long way to go before we can put this recession behind us, the gears of our economic engine do appear to be slowly turning once again.

"Consumer spending and home sales are stabilizing, and construction was up for the first time in six months. So step by step, we are making progress."

Revisions up


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Some analysts said Friday's figures showed only a marginal improvement for the economy.

Avery Shenfeld, from CIBC World Markets, said: "It may have been better than expected, but it still wasn't as good as it looks.

"When you add in the downward revisions to prior months and strip out an outsized gain in government employment, the overall trend still looks ugly."

Aaron Smith, from Moody's Economy.com, said the labour market needed to show more improvement to nurture a recovery.

He said: "If the economy continues to lose 500,000 to 600,000 jobs per month, stabilisation in consumer spending and housing will quickly give way to renewed weakening."

Steeper losses

The department said that since the recession began in December 2007, about 5.7 million jobs had been lost.

It revised its estimates to show steeper job losses in February and March, saying February cuts were 681,000 instead of 651,000 and March losses revised up to 699,000 from 663,000. 

The number of long-term unemployed, those without jobs for 27 weeks or more, increased by 498,000 to 3.7 million over the month and has risen by 2.4 million since the start of the recession.

The US economy suffered a 6.1 per cent output decline in the first quarter of 2009 after a 6.3 per cent pace of decline in the fourth quarter of 2008.