For March, the increase of 140,000 payroll jobs was concentrated in the service industries, which added 131,000 jobs led by strong growth in health care, recreation and engineering.

In contrast to gains in services, manufacturing industries laid off 62,000 workers in March. Half of that decline, however, was blamed on the impact of the recently settled strike at General Motors.

Construction, which soared by 114,000 jobs in February, declined by 13,000 in March.

Payroll jobs have been swinging wildly in the first three months of this year, falling by 146,000 in January because of the government shutdowns and the blizzards, soaring by 624,000 in February and rising by a more moderate 140,000 in March.

Katharine G. Abraham, head of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said that to get a more accurate picture of the labor market it was necessary to average the gains. She said the 206,000 average increase of the past three months was above the monthly average for the last nine months of 1995 but still below the average for all of 1994, a year the economy had expanded strongly.

The unemployment rate of 5.5 percent was well within the narrow range of 5.4 percent to 5.8 percent where it has been hovering for the past 18 months.