State jobless rate falls to 8.2%

Feb. data show most hiring in over a year

By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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Massachusetts in February posted its biggest monthly jobs gains in more than a year and the unemployment rate declined to its lowest level since May 2009, the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported yesterday.

It was also the fifth consecutive month the state has added jobs, the latest sign the Massachusetts economy and job market are moving in the right direction, economists said.

Massachusetts employers added more than 15,000 jobs last month — the most since January 2010. The state unemployment rate fell to 8.2 percent from 8.3 percent in January and 8.8 percent a year before, state officials said.

The US jobless rate was 8.9 percent in February, down from 9 percent the previous month and 9.7 percent a year earlier.

A Northeastern University economics professor, Alan Clayton-Matthews said the numbers are good news.

“This is consistent with what we’re seeing nationally,’’ he said, “a sort of recovery that is gaining strength, although we have to wait and see what the fallout from Japan and the Middle East will be.’’

Governor Deval Patrick, who has been on an international trade mission for the last two weeks trying to bring jobs to Massachusetts, welcomed yesterday’s report, although the data do not reflect Tuesday’s announcement by Fidelity Investments that it will shutter its Marlborough offices and move nearly 1,100 jobs out of state.

“These are more than just numbers,’’ he said in a statement. “These figures represent thousands of people in the Commonwealth getting back to work.’’

Yesterday’s report showed broad employment gains. Only three of 11 major employment sectors lost jobs: Manufacturing shed 1,100 jobs, construction 1,000, and government 700.

Education and health services, the state’s largest employment sector, led February’s gains, adding 6,500 jobs. Leisure and hospitality, which includes restaurants and hotels, gained 4,300 jobs. Professional, scientific, and business services, which includes technology, research, and consulting firms, added 2,800 jobs. Financial services gained 1,100 jobs.

Sean Dowling, metro market manager at Robert Half International, a staffing firm, said employers in education and health care are looking to fill a growing number of administrative and information technology positions. Health care employers, for example, are asking recruiters to find business analysts who can help digitize medical records systems and technology specialists who can write complex computer codes to create the electronic records.

Hiring by banks is also “heating up a bit,’’ Dowling said.

“They’ve been quiet for a while,’’ he said. “So it’s exciting to see that come back.’’

Demand for Web designers and social media specialists has also grown as more businesses seek to update their image online, he added.

Andre Mayer, senior vice president for research at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest employer group, called the job gains a “very positive sign,’’ although he urged a cautious interpretation of their importance. The instability of the US economy in recent years, combined with unrest in the Middle East and natural and nuclear disasters in Japan, could affect business and consumer confidence, which are viewed by economists as important to driving the recovery forward.

Mayer said state numbers are also subject to change; the state recently issued significantly revised jobs and unemployment figures for the past few years that altered economists’ view of the recession and recovery here. The new benchmarks showed the downturn in Massachusetts was milder than first thought, and the state’s rebound weaker.

“We are seeing gains and we are seeing some progress; things are getting better and in some cases people are finding jobs,’’ Mayer said. “But we are not really getting to a stable place of sustained growth. And we have not been able to get past the sense of uncertainty.’’

The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index fell slightly last month, Mayer said, but was higher than in the same period in each of the last two years.

Elliot Winer, chief economist at Northeast Economic Analysis Group LLC, a Sudbury consulting firm, said gains in education services and leisure and hospitality may be overstated because of technical issues related to seasonal adjustments.

But trends look positive, he said. Particularly encouraging, he said, were three months of gains in professional, scientific, and technical services, which added more than 5,000 jobs since December.

“The bottom line is we’re seeing gradual improvements,’’ Winer said. “Unemployment is still high, certainly much higher than we want it to be, but the good news is that [it is] starting to trend down.’’

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at