A few years ago, Tirrani Eason would have had her choice of jobs.
But at 23, even with a double major in accounting and finance from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she's had a hard time finding full-time work.
Now, though, Eason feels as if the economy is turning around, and her hunch may be backed up by regional employment data released Thursday.
Tennessee and Georgia state data show slightly more people are returning to work in the Chattanooga region, but unemployment statewide remains stubbornly high.
"I've been on way more interviews over the last few weeks than before," said Eason, who graduated in December. "It's been a lot harder than I imagined."
February's jobless rate was 8.8 percent in the metro Chattanooga area, down three-tenths of a percent from January. Metro Chattanooga includes Hamilton, Marion and Sequatchie counties in Tennessee and Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties in Georgia.
The rate in Hamilton County improved just one-tenth of 1 percent to 8.6 percent.
Eason, who interviewed this week for a logistics company job through staffing agency Manpower, said she hopes she'll find a job soon.
"I feel like when the market picks up, people my age will benefit," Eason said. "Employers don't have to pay us as much, so I feel like when things get better, I will be a good position."
While things are brighter for Eason, the outlook hasn't gotten much better in most of Tennessee and Georgia, where unemployment remains higher than the national average.
The national rate in February was 8.9 percent, compared to 10.2 percent in Georgia. That was just one-tenth of 1 percent better than January, though figures show roughly 800 jobs were created in Dalton during February.
Unemployment rates decreased in 20 of Georgia's 25 local areas, the labor department said. Five area rates remained unchanged.
Tennessee's February jobless rate was 9.6 percent, up 0.2 percent from the previous month, according to the state labor department.
Across Tennessee, unemployment rates improved in 57 counties, got worse in 26 counties and remained the same in 12 counties, the state reported.
Lincoln County was lowest at 6.6 percent, down from 6.7 percent in January. Scott County was highest at 22.7 percent, down from 23.2 percent.
Hamilton County's 8.6 rate was second in the state's metropolitan areas. Knox County had the lowest metropolitan rate of 7.6 percent, up from 7.5 percent in January.
Nashville's Davidson County was 8.7 percent, up from 8.6 percent in January, and Memphis' Shelby County was 10.5 percent, up from 10.4 percent in January.
Local employers find room for some optimism, but most agree recovery will be slow. Unemployment in Chattanooga has remained high even though growing companies such as Volkswagen, Wacker, Amazon and Chattem have been hiring in recent months.
"Over the last year, we've steadily been growing," said Mark Campbell, owner of the Chattanooga and Dalton staffing franchise offices for Manpower. "But we still have a ways to go, and a lot of things have changed in the economy."
Some businesses have scaled back since the recession, modernizing and reducing the need for manpower. Others are waiting until demand for their products rises.
That's part of the problem in Dalton, which for years has been the nation's industrial carpet-making hub. Since the real estate market collapsed, demand for carpet has been slow and many carpet makers have converted plants to rely on fewer employees.
But officials at Shaw Floors see some optimism in the year ahead.
"Late 2010 and 2011 have shown some subtle signs of improvement. Most projections say homebuilders will build more houses in 2011," Shaw President Randy Merritt said. "We believe there is tremendous pent up demand in all segments and especially in remodeling."
But the company now is hiring only to fill for "turnover and improving manufacturing schedules," Merritt said.
The same pattern applies to Chattanooga-based insurer BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, whose officials say they are being cautious in the wake of the federal health care reform.
"Our hiring outlook for the remainder of 2011 and 2012 is conservative," said Ron Harr, senior vice president, human resources and public relations. "At this point, we do not expect to add any new positions during the period. Every existing position that opens must be thoroughly reviewed and approved before it is filled."
But just blocks away, insurer Unum, with 3,000 employees in Chattanooga, has been hiring steadily over the last year and plans to continue to add employees throughout the year.
"We weathered the recession really well, maintaining staff levels, and now we are adding positions," said spokesman Seth Seymour. "Unum is hiring across the country, and in 2011, we will have hired 50 employees through March."
Unlike the carpet industry, which sagged as demand dipped, Unum saw steady demand for its disability, life insurance and other voluntary workplace benefits.
"Employers and employees who use Unum value financial protection and benefits now more than ever," Seymour said. "Demand for these types of products and services is still very high."
Despite the pockets of optimism, Americans' perception of the economy seems to wax and wane each month.
An Associated Press-GfK poll released Thursday found that a little more than 15 percent of Americans believe the economy has improved over the past month.
In January, 30 percent of Americans felt the economy was improving, according to The Associated Press.