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State gains jobs for fourth straight month

The Massachusetts economy gained jobs for the fourth consecutive month in March as as the state unemployment rate fell to the lowest level in more more than three years.

Massachusetts employers last month added 8,700 jobs, after increasing payrolls by 7,200 jobs in February, and nearly 14,000 in January, the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported Thursday. The unemployment rate fell to 6.5 percent from 6.9 percent in February. The state unemployment rate, now at the lowest level since November 2008, remains well below the national jobless rate 0f 8.2 percent in March.

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Economists said the jobs picture in Massachusetts has been brighter than they expected in the first three months of this year. The state has added nearly 30,000 jobs through the first three months of the year.

“This is a really positive employment report,” said Northeastern University economics professor Alan Clayton-Matthews. “We have three months of consistently high results, so that’s a pretty good indication that we’ve had at least moderate job growth.”

Economists caution that the monthly job-creation figures are estimates from data collected by the US Labor Department and subject to frequent revision. Last month, the Labor Department dramatically lowered officials dramatically lowered estimates of the state’s job growth in 2011, finding that the state’s pace of job growth fell behind the nation’s.

The most recent data from employers, however, reversed that picture and showed the state economy creating jobs at a slightly faster pace than the nation’s. Labor Department officials acknowledged that they probably got it wrong last month when they slashed 2011 job growth estimates.

Michael Goodman, a public policy professor at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth, said the exact numbers need to be “interpreted cautiously and viewed as a “first draft of our economic history for 2012.”

Goodman also said employment data for the first three months of the year has shown steady growth.

“Clearly this is yet another sign that the Massachusetts recovery continues,” he said. “Slowly but surely we are climbing out of this very deep hole that we’ve been in since the beginning of the Great Recession.”

The state still has a ways to go. The unemployment rate remains 2 points above its pre-recession level. And while the number of unemployed in the state has declined by nearly 35,000 0ver the past year, more than 226,000 jobless residents are still looking for work.

The data also indicate that the divide between white and blue collar workers in the state persists, Goodman said, with blue collar workers continuing to fall behind.

For example, the professional, scientific and business services sector, which includes a variety of technology, consulting and research firms, added 4,900 jobs during the month and has gained more than 17,000 jobs over the year. Meanwhile, the construction sector lost 700 jobs in March and has lost 1,200 jobs year-to-date.

All told, half of the 10 private sectors tracked by the state added jobs. Trade, transportation and utility jobs gained 2,800 jobs over the month; education and health Services, 2,500; manufacturing, 300; and personal and other services, 100.

Sectors losing jobs over the month included leisure and hospitality, down 600; financial services, which shed 300; and information, which lost 100.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com

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