Job creation fell sharply in May with just 138,000 new positions created, while the unemployment rate declined to 4.3 percent, according to Labor Department data released Friday.
Economists surveyed by Reuters expected nonfarm payrolls to grow by 185,000 and the unemployment rate to hold steady at 4.4 percent.
Wage growth also disappointed, with average hourly earnings rising at a 2.5 percent annualized pace. The average work week was unchanged at 34.4 hours.
"This report is clearly soft in every material respect relative to expectations and relative to last month. That's a disappointment," said Eric Winograd, U.S. economist at Alliance Bernstein. However, he added, "I don't think it's soft enough to cause a fundamental rethink of the economic outlook."
In addition to the weak May numbers, previous months also saw significant downward revisions. March's weak 79,000 got sliced down to 50,000, while the April number declined to 174,000 from 211,000. Taken together, job growth has averaged just 121,000 over the past three months.
Several economists said the May numbers in particular often are subject to seasonal quirks and come in low.
"May has proven to be a difficult month for payrolls in recent years as spring hiring slows down and recent college graduates have yet to enter the labor force," Charlie Ripley, investment strategists for Allianz Investment Management, said in a note. "While today's number disappointed, we cannot ignore the fact that labor market conditions (are) tight and finding available workers to fill positions is becoming more difficult."