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updated 4/7/2010 4:15:19 PM ET 2010-04-07T20:15:19

Unemployment rates fell or remained unchanged in two-thirds of the 372 largest U.S. metro areas in February. The news adds to evidence that the job market is improving.

Major Market Indices

The Labor Department's report offers a brighter picture compared with the previous two months, when the jobless rate rose in most areas.

Unemployment fell in 189 metro areas in February. That compares with only three in January, though the report that month was distorted by an annual data revision. The rate fell in only 41 metro areas in December.

Still, joblessness remains widespread. Twenty-nine areas posted jobless rates of 15 percent or higher, though that's down from 35 in January.

The metro employment numbers aren't seasonally adjusted and can be volatile.

The report comes after the Labor Department said Friday that the nation added a net total of 162,000 jobs in March, the most in three years. The unemployment rate held at 9.7 percent for the third straight month.

More hiring may be on the way. A separate survey of large company CEOs, released Wednesday, showed that for the first time in two years, more chief executives expect to be adding jobs than cutting them.

The survey, released by the Business Roundtable, said 29 percent of chief executives expect to boost corporate payrolls over the next six months. At the same time, 21 percent predict their work forces will shrink. Half see no change in jobs.

The results are better than in the fourth quarter of 2009, when only 19 percent of chief executives expected to hire.

According to the Labor Department's report, the eight U.S. metro areas showing the greatest improvement in unemployment in February were all in Louisiana: New Orleans, Lake Charles, Alexandria, Lafayette and several other metro areas all saw joblessness drop sharply.

The jobless rate in New Orleans fell to 6.5 percent in February, from 7.9 percent in January and 6.8 percent in December. That gave it the lowest rate in the country among metro areas with 1 million or more people, the department said.

Mike Zoller, an economist at Moody's Analytics, said Louisiana has benefited from rising oil prices, increasing international trade and federal support for rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

Higher oil prices, now above $86 per barrel, have heightened interest in drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, Zoller said. Increasing exports have also boosted shipments from the Port of New Orleans and other ports in the state, he said.

Thirteen of the U.S. metro areas with joblessness above 15 percent were in California, and four were in Michigan, the government's report said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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