The Labor Department's new employment snapshot released Friday suggested that outside of the burst of hiring of temporary census workers by the federal government many private employers are wary of bulking up their work forces.
That indicates the economic recovery can only plod along and won't have the energy to quickly bring relief to millions of unemployed Americans.
Virtually all the job creation in May came from the hiring of 411,000 census workers. Such hiring peaked in May and will begin tailing off in June.
By contrast, hiring by private employers, the backbone of the economy, slowed sharply. They added just 41,000 jobs, down from 218,000 in April and the fewest since January.
The unemployment rate, which is derived from a separate survey than the payroll figures, fell to 9.7 percent from 9.9 percent. The dip partly reflected 322,000 people leaving the labor force for a variety of reasons.
All told, 15 million people were unemployed in May.
Counting people who have given up looking for work and part-timers who would rather be working full time, the "underemployment" rate fell to 16.6 percent in May from 17.1 percent in April. Even with the drop, the high underemployment figure shows how difficult it is for jobseekers to find work.