updated 3/26/2010 4:58:08 PM ET 2010-03-26T20:58:08

State unemployment rates stabilized last month, reflecting a broader nationwide trend, according to a Labor Department report Friday. Sixteen states said their jobless rate was unchanged in February, seven reported declines and 27 reported increases.

Major Market Indices

That's an improvement from January, when 30 states saw their rates rise, and much better than December, when joblessness rose in 43 states.

The nationwide unemployment rate was 9.7 percent in February, the same as the previous month. Layoffs are slowing as the economy is recovering and there are signs that employers are stepping up hiring.

The economy is likely to generate more than 150,000 new jobs this month, according to a survey of economists by Thomson Reuters. The national figures for March will be released next Friday. The jobless rate is forecast to remain at 9.7 percent.

These "readings are consistent with labor markets beginning to show some stability," said Donald Schunk, an economist at Coastal Carolina University near Myrtle Beach, S.C.

But Schunk and other economists said there are still few signs of widespread, consistent job growth. Twenty-seven states reported a decline in total jobs, the Labor Department said, while 23 said jobs increased.

The biggest drops in employment were in Virginia, which lost 32,600 jobs; California, which shed 20,400; and Michigan and Pennsylvania, which each lost 16,000.

Virginia officials blamed at least part of the drop on the huge snowstorms that hit the East Coast last month. The Virginia Employment Commission noted that the construction industry shed 9,000 jobs in February, much more than in February 2009.

Four states, meanwhile, reached record-high unemployment rates: Nevada at 13.2 percent; Florida, at 12.2 percent; North Carolina at 11.2 percent and Georgia at 10.5 percent.

Florida, however, also posted the largest gain in jobs of any state, with an increase of 26,300.

Most of that gain was in professional and business services, which includes temporary hires. Many economists see increased temp hiring as a positive sign that permanent hiring will follow soon.

The report is "evidence that we're approaching a turning point," said Sean Snaith, an economics professor at the University of Central Florida.

But the turnaround will likely take a long time, Snaith said, as many of Florida's traditional economic engines — construction and leisure and tourism, for example — remain weak.

"Florida's recovery is going to be long and slow, unfortunately," he said. The state may not generate consistent job gains until the second half of this year, he added.

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