Maine’s unemployment rate dropped to 6.2 percent in January, down from a revised 6.4 percent in December and 7 percent a year ago.

The state’s unemployment rate was better than the national rate of 6.7 percent, which was little changed from 6.6 percent in December and down from 7.7 percent a year ago.

The share of Maine’s population that was employed – 61.2 percent – continued to outpace the national average of 58.8 percent. January was the 76th consecutive month in which Maine’s employment-to-population ratio exceeded the national average.

Maine’s unemployment rate also was better than the New England average of 6.7 percent. The six states’ unemployment rates ranged from 4 percent in Vermont to 9.2 percent in Rhode Island.

Maine’s decline in unemployment follows trends throughout much of the country. In January, 42 other states and the District of Columbia had month-over-month unemployment rate decreases. The government counts people as unemployed only if they are actively seeking jobs.

At the peak of the recession, in 2010, Maine’s unemployment rate hit 8.4 percent. Before the recession, it had been as low as 4.5 percent.

The preliminary estimate of non-farm payroll jobs in Maine was 605,500 in January, up 6,500 from one year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s still below the 620,000 non-farm payroll jobs before the recession.

The number of private sector jobs has gradually risen since 2010, while jobs in federal, state and local government have declined. Over the last year, job growth was strongest in retail, which added 2,100 jobs; professional and business services, which added 1,800 jobs; leisure and hospitality, which added 1,600 jobs; and finance and insurance, which added 1,200 jobs, according to state Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

“While it is true that Maine has seen improvement in some headline numbers, the employment-to-population ratio for the 25- to 54-year-old age group, which is people in their prime working age, has not recovered from the recession,” said Joel Johnson, an economist with the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a left-leaning think tank.

Johnson also said the overall numbers mask differences between the state’s urban centers and rural towns.

While the state as a whole had a net increase of 6,900 jobs from June 2009 through September 2013, Portland added 7,000 jobs, Bangor added 1,000, and Lewiston-Auburn added 1,300. The rest of the state had a net decline in payroll jobs over the same period, said the Maine Center for Economic Policy. The numbers since September are subject to revision.

“There’s incredible divergence between Maine’s rural and urban areas … all of the state, minus those three areas, has seen a net decline in jobs,” Johnson said.

The not-seasonally-adjusted statewide unemployment rate was 6.9 percent in January, down from 8.2 percent one year ago. Those rates ranged from 5 percent in Cumberland County to 11.2 percent in Washington County.

Rates tended to be lower than the statewide average in southern and central counties and higher than average in northern counties.

The rate was below the statewide average in all three metropolitan areas: Portland-South Portland-Biddeford was at 5.4 percent; Bangor was at 6.3 percent; and Lewiston-Auburn was at 6.1 percent.

Gov. Paul LePage highlighted several companies that have hired workers in Maine over the past several months, including the Barclaycards credit card company, Irving Forest Products, the call-center company Ameridial, the Eimskip container shipping company, the private aircraft servicing company Tempus Jets, Maine Wood Concepts and Molnlycke Health Care.

Companies that have laid off workers in recent months include Great Northern Paper, which laid off 212 workers in February; Flotation Technologies, which closed at year end and laid off 40 workers; and Fairchild Semiconductor, which laid off 62 employees last year.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators reached an agreement last week to reinstate for five months the extended unemployment benefits that expired Dec. 28. About 2 million long-term unemployed people have lost their benefits since Dec. 28. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is one of the sponsors of the proposal.

Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at [email protected]

Twitter: @JessicaHallPPH