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HELENA (AP) — Annual job growth in Montana dropped to the second lowest level in 10 years last month, in what one economist said appears to be a repeat of 2002 when the state's economy was uneven.

The monthly report from the state Department of Labor and Industry showed that Montana added 800 jobs since March of last year, a 0.2 percent increase. That matched the rate reported in April and May of last year. Only March 2002, at 0.1 percent, was slower during the past decade.

Paul Polzin, director for the Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research in Missoula, said Thursday the pattern of job growth so far this year mirrors the first quarter of 2002.

After a slow start, the pace improved in the latter half of last year, and the big question is whether that trend will occur again, he said.

Polzin acknowledged he was a little mystified.

"I don't see a reason for deceleration in the economy, yet there is one," he said. "I don't know what's going to happen in the second half.

"Looking out there on the economic landscape, we don't see the events — layoffs, plant closures — that would lead me to believe that the Montana economy is decelerating," Polzin said.

Still, the fact that the healthy growth at the end of 2002 has not continued with the new year is a reason for worry, he said. "It's always a matter of concern when you see a slowdown in the data. That is not something that should be taken lightly."

The biggest job losses occurred in manufacturing with a 5.1 percent decline that equaled 1,000 jobs. Transportation, warehouse and utility businesses had a drop of 3.8 percent, or 600 jobs.

On the other hand, leisure and hospitality businesses added 900 jobs, an increase of almost 2 percent, and construction companies had 700 more jobs than a year ago, a 3.9 percent growth.

Financial institutions saw an increase of 600 jobs since March of last year, a 3.2 percent improvement.

Supermarket jobs were off by 2.3 percent, but jobs in bars and restaurants were up 2.6 percent.

The Labor Department also reported that Montanans' weekly pay continued to grow faster than inflation, reaching an average of $404.48.

That represented a 5.8 percent increase over the year, compared with a 3 percent jump in the cost of living.

Montana's unemployment rate in March dipped to 5.1 percent, the lowest for the month in at least 33 years.

The department estimated 23,700 people were out of work, about 2,600 fewer than a year ago.

The highest county jobless rates were Lincoln, 17.5 percent; Big Horn, 17.4 percent; Glacier, 12.6 percent; Mineral, 10.6 percent; and Sanders, 10.5 percent.

The lowest county unemployment rates were Carter, 2.3 percent; Sweet Grass, 2.6 percent; Chouteau and Daniels, 2.7 percent; Stillwater and Wibaux, 2.8 percent; and Fallon, Garfield and Liberty, 2.9 percent.

Among the state's most-populous counties, Lake had had the highest unemployment rate at 7.6 percent, followed by Flathead, 6.4 percent; Ravalli, 6 percent; Silver Bow, 5.9 percent; Park, 5.3 percent; Lewis and Clark, 4.9 percent; Cascade, 4.6 percent; Missoula, 4.3 percent; Hill, 4.1 percent; Yellowstone, 3.7 percent; and Gallatin, 3 percent.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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