U.S. payroll employment rose by 115,000 in April, less than anticipated, and the unemployment rate was little changed at 8.1 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said today.

Employment increased in professional and business services, retail trade and health care but declined in transportation and warehousing.

U.S. hiring likely picked up last month after its March swoon, though the gains are expected to be modest.

Economists predicted employers added 163,000 jobs in April. That would be better than the disappointing 120,000 jobs created in March. But it’s not enough to lower the unemployment rate, which is expected to stay at 8.2 percent, a three-year low.

The economy created an average of 246,000 jobs a month from December through February. The hiring slowdown in March sparked fears that job growth was weakening.

Some economists have said that a mild winter led some companies to accelerate hiring in January and February. That may have weakened March’s figures. For many, April’s report was to serve as more of a bellwether.

Mixed data on hiring at U.S. factories and service companies, along with a temporary spike in unemployment benefit applications, has heightened interest in Friday’s report.

“Given the mixed signals ... (today’s) jobs report will play an enormous role in shaping expectations about the state of the economy,” John Ryding, an economist at RDQ Economics, said in a note to clients.

The economy must create at least 125,000 jobs a month just to keep pace with population growth. It generally takes twice that number on a consistent basis to rapidly lower the unemployment rate.

The rate has fallen from 9.1 percent in August to 8.2 percent in March. Part of the reason for the rapid decline is that some people have given up looking for work. People who are out of work but not looking for jobs aren’t counted among the unemployed.

Even with the decline, President Barack Obama is likely to face voters this fall with the highest unemployment rate of any president since World War II.