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Job growth picks up in Mass.

The Massachusetts unemployment rate slipped below the nation’s for the first time since November as employers added nearly 4,000 jobs last month, the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said Thursday.

Unemployment in February fell to 6.5 percent from 6.8 percent in January, the state reported. Nationally, the rate rose slightly last month, to 6.7 percent from 6.6 percent in January.

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Last month’s job gains followed revised losses of 3,900 jobs in January. Professional, scientific, and business services, which includes a variety of technical, technology, and research firms, led last month’s job gains, adding 6,200 jobs. Trade, transportation, and utilities, which includes retailers, gained 3,200 jobs, and manufacturing added 400 jobs.

The leisure and hospitality sector, which includes hotels and restaurants, experienced the steepest losses in February, shedding 3,600 jobs. Financial services lost 1,600 jobs, and education and health services lost 900.

Alan Clayton-Matthews, a Northeastern University economics professor, noted that temporary employment, which is included in the professional and business-services sector, has been steadily increasing, an indication employers are hiring and that the economy is expanding more broadly than in the tech sector alone.

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Companies’ hiring of temporary workers fell sharply at the start of the recession to a low of 46,000 in mid-2009 from 68,000 two years earlier. In February, temporary employment in Massachusetts rose to 65,000 jobs, approaching the prerecession peak.

Overall employment in Massachusetts is now close to surpassing the all-time high reached in February 2001, Clayton-Matthews said. The state needs to add about 4,600 jobs to reach that pinnacle. If job growth continues at the current rate, that could occur in the next month or two, he said.

Economists have cited the uneven nature of the state’s recovery from the 2008 recession. While the highly educated segment of the state’s population has been doing very well, earnings for lower- and middle-income families and those with a high school degree or less have barely been growing.

Job growth has also been concentrated in Greater Boston, the state’s technology hub, where the unemployment rate fell below 6 percent in January, the most recently local data available. In communities such as Fall River, Springfield, and Eastham, unemployment remains in double digits.

“It’s a mixed story,” Clayton-Matthews said.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com.
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