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State jobless rate falls to lowest point in two years

Mass. employers add 3,200 jobs in March

By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / April 15, 2011

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The state unemployment rate fell in March to its lowest point in nearly two years, as Massachusetts employers added jobs for the sixth consecutive month, the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported yesterday.

The state jobless rate slipped to 8 percent from 8.2 in February and remains well below the national rate of 8.8 percent. A year ago, the state’s unemployment rate was 8.7 percent.

Andre Mayer, senior vice president for research at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest employer group, said that the lower rate is another sign of the improving economy, but that unemployment remains high. About 281,000 people were counted as jobless last month, and many employers, Mayer said, appear in no rush to hire.

“It’s a positive report, but certainly short of exciting,’’ Mayer said. “We’re moving ahead slowly. It looks as if maybe this very slow progress is the best we can hope for at the moment.’’

Improvement in the national labor market has come slowly, too. Yesterday, the US Labor Department reported that first-time claims for unemployment benefits jumped to 412,000 last week, up 27,000 from the previous week. It was the first time since earlier March that weekly jobless claims have climbed above 400,000, but they remain well below the levels of a year ago.

Massachusetts employers added 3,200 jobs in March, following gains of more than 14,000 jobs in February. Leisure and hospitality, which includes restaurants and hotels, led the March gains with the addition of 2,100 jobs. The sector has increased employment by 13,100 jobs over the past year.

Professional, scientific, and business services — which include a variety of technology, research, and consulting firms, as well as lawyers and accountants — also posted strong gains, adding 1,500 jobs last month. The sector, a key driver of the state’s economy, has accounted for some of the biggest gains over the past year, adding 7,500 jobs since March 2010.

The construction sector also gained 1,500 jobs, yet employment levels remain below those of a year ago. The state reported that the industry lost 1,000 jobs since March 2010.

“Those folks with lesser skills and lower educational attainment continue to suffer,’’ said Michael D. Goodman, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “In this environment, you take your good news where you can.’’

Information industries — which include newspapers, software publishers, and telecommunications — gained 800 jobs. The state added 300 manufacturing jobs last month, but job growth has been flat over the year.

Retailers shed about 1,500 jobs in March, the state reported, and financial services lost 400 in March and 700 over the year.

Elliot Winer, chief economist for the Northeast Economic Analysis Group in Sudbury, said that while the state’s overall economy is moving in the right direction, “those two sectors are not doing too well.’’

Additional job losses occurred throughout government. Local governments shed 500 jobs, the federal government 400 and state government 300. Over the year, government employment fell by 4,500 jobs, with local government experiencing the biggest losses.

Mayer said local government has collected less in property taxes due to the weak real estate market, forcing cutbacks. He said state and local government have been squeezed because of declines in tax collections and rising health care costs.

“That’s likely to continue,’’ Mayer said of the job losses. “We’re seeing serious fiscal pressures on state and local government.’’

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.