The biggest monthly bump in construction hiring in two years drove Minnesota employment up by 2,600 jobs in March, a healthy bounce after a slow start to the year.

Construction employment rose by 2,700 in March despite the snow and cold, an encouraging sign for an industry that has been slow to replace the 46,000 jobs it lost between 2006 and 2010.

"Considering that March was still the depths of winter here, it does show signs that construction is likely to exhibit some real growth as spring finally arrives," said Steve Hine, a labor market economist for the state.

The state's unemployment rate was unchanged at 4.8 percent, well below the national rate of 6.7 percent, according to figures released Thursday by the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Construction hiring, primarily in the trades, has risen 11 percent since March 2013, its fastest 12-month gain on record. Several large projects, such as the Vikings stadium and apartment complexes, have kicked off this spring, said Gregg Johnson, president of the Minnesota Construction Association. Road and bridge projects will start soon, he said, so companies may be hiring to gear up for the season.

"There's good steady growth again starting to happen," Johnson said. "I wouldn't call it booming, but it's definitely improving."

A $125 million plan for six new pumping stations along a crude oil pipeline to the Twin Cities will create more construction work, said Bill Blazar of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, as will the recently begun work on the new Saints ballpark in St. Paul.

"You drive around, there are cranes everywhere," Blazar said. "I think it's come back a lot."

The March gains in construction and professional and business services offset job losses in retail, private education and hotels and restaurants. Department stores employ 28,000 people in the state, 20,000 fewer than in March 2008, Hine said.

Minnesota has added 41,582 jobs in the past year, a growth rate of 1.5 percent. That's slightly below the 1.6 percent pace of U.S. job growth over the same period.

Professional and business services led all sectors last month with 3,500 new jobs, including 1,000 in generally well-paid professional, scientific and technical jobs. Other sectors that posted modest monthly gains were financial activities, government and logging and mining.

Ten of the eleven major industries in the state have more jobs than they did a year ago, with only financial activities posting a 12-month decline.

Manufacturing added only 200 jobs in March, but that was because nondurable goods, a sector that is dominated by the food industry, lost 1,500. Durable goods manufacturing added 1,700 jobs last month.

"Six consecutive months of job additions in manufacturing is also encouraging," said Laura Kalambokidis, the state economist. "Within durable goods it's mostly transportation and fabricated metals."

Minnesota's labor force hit a milestone in March, surpassing the 3 million mark for the first time as a result of gradual population growth. The labor force has been growing more slowly in the past two decades than in earlier years, said Hine.

The labor force participation rate — the share of the population that is either working or looking for a job — climbed a tenth of a percent to 70.6 percent, its third straight month of growth.

"That's interesting because we've been on this long downward trend on the labor force participation rate," Kalambokidis said.

It's too soon to tell, she said, whether the long-term trend on labor force participation has been reversed, or if the past three months have been a blip. Retirements of baby boomers over the next decade will likely drag the participation rate down.

Leading indicators were mixed in the March data. The average Minnesotan's workweek edged up a tenth of an hour to 34 hours, the highest reading for March since 2008, Hine said. Online job postings tumbled nationally and in Minnesota.

Temporary hiring, considered a good indicator of pent-up demand for workers, increased slightly in March. Growth in that sector has been barely positive for the past 12 months, however.

All of Minnesota's biggest cities have added jobs over the past 12 months except Rochester, where employment is down slightly. St. Cloud and Mankato are both up more than 2 percent, the Twin Cities are up 1.4 percent, and Duluth-Superior is up slightly, by two-tenths of a percent.