Maine’s unemployment rate rose to 7.2 percent last month, up slightly from 7.1 percent in February, marking the second consecutive month in which the rate increased as more people sought jobs, according to the state Department of Labor.

The increase was driven by more than 1,200 people entering the labor force while the number of available jobs changed little.

“The rate reflects the number of people actively engaged in a work search,” said Glenn Mills, chief economist of the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research.

Maine’s March unemployment rate exceeded New England’s average of 7.0 percent. “The growth (of the economy) in Massachusetts and New Hampshire put us back into our traditional position of exceeding the New England average,” said Charles Colgan, professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

Maine’s March unemployment rate did improve from a year ago, when the rate was 7.8 percent. The number of unemployed totaled 51,300, down 3,300 from a year ago, said state Labor Commissioner Robert Winglass.

The numbers are seasonally adjusted.

Maine’s unemployment rate in March was less than the national rate of 8.2 percent, which was down from 8.3 percent in February and 8.9 percent a year ago. Maine’s unemployment rate has been below the national average throughout the economic downturn.

Still, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said Maine had the largest monthly percentage drop in employment, 0.5 percent, followed by Wyoming. Estimates from the bureau indicated there were 595,000 nonfarm payroll jobs in March, down 2,700 from the revised February estimate.

Mills said that statistic could change when the estimated employment statistics are finalized and revised. The March drop followed an unusually large jump in January, Mills said.

The estimated jobs data tend to fluctuate more than the complete count of wage and salary jobs collected through employers’ quarterly unemployment insurance tax filings, Mills said.

“The month-to-month numbers tend to be volatile. On a quarterly basis, you get a much more clear picture. It’s the first time in a long time that we’ve seen growth in jobs — about two to three thousand jobs for the quarter as a whole,” Colgan said.

“It’s the first time in five quarters that we’ve seen any sort of growth,” he said.

Colgan said Maine’s employment rate was flat through all of 2011. The current level of 595,000 jobs still is below the 620,000 jobs before the recession, Colgan said.

Unemployment rates in the metropolitan areas of Greater Portland, Bangor and Lewiston-Auburn were below the statewide average for non-seasonally adjusted data.

Non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rates ranged from 6.6 percent in Cumberland County to 12.2 percent in Washington County. The southern and central counties tend to have lower unemployment rates than the higher-than-average levels in the midcoast and northern counties.

“A lot of this is based on the economic structure of the state. In the western and northern counties, you see logging, sawmills and paper mills, which were hit rather hard in the economic downturn,” said Mills. “In Cumberland County, the job base is more diverse — hospitals, financial services, professional services and education, which have seen growth in the recovery.”

Manufacturing and construction have been among the hardest-hit sectors in the slow economy. Colgan, however, said that on a quarterly basis there may be a glimmer of hope: manufacturing may show slight gains and construction numbers could benefit from the unusually warm weather so far this year.

“The uptick of manufacturing is a positive sign of growth for the state of Maine,” said Lisa Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine. “Our challenge lies in the development of a skilled work force to fill these jobs.”

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