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Workers assemble a Volkswagen Passat at the German automaker's Chattanooga, plant.

Unemployment fell across the Chattanooga region last month, although the pace of job growth over the past year in the Chattanooga metropolitan area was only half the national rate of increase.

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said the jobless rate in the six-county Chattanooga metro area declined by two-tenths of a percent in February to 7.6 percent. That was a full percentage point below the comparable, nonseasonally adjusted U.S. jobless rate for last month.

"The market for professional and management jobs has flipped in the past year in Chattanooga from being an employer-driven market to now more of a candidate-driven market," said Al Clark, the local franchise owner and general manager of Management Recruiters of Chattanooga. "Many job candidates who were competing for an offer 18 months ago are now getting multiple offers."

Although the jobless rate has declined from double-digit levels two years ago, unemployment remains above 10 percent in more than half of the counties in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia.

In the Chattanooga region, unemployment last month was lowest in Catoosa County at 6.5 percent and highest in Murray County, Ga., at 13.5 percent.

"Unemployment is likely to remain at elevated levels this year, but the labor market continues to show signs of improvement, and we're seeing fairly good job growth across the country," said Matt Murray, associate director at the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee.

The Chattanooga metro area added 1,930 net jobs in the past year. But the region's 0.8 percent job growth from February 2011 to February 2012 was less than half the 1.8 percent growth nationwide, according to state labor figures released Thursday.

Murray said as the jobless rate declines, more discouraged workers may come back into the labor market, swelling the labor force and likely keeping the unemployment rate elevated for many months to come.

"But all signs show that the economy continues to improve," Murray said.

University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox noted that durable manufacturing is doing better, especially from companies like Volkswagen in Chattanooga. VW plans to add 1,000 more workers at its Chattanooga assembly plant this year.

"Tennessee is doing better now than many of the historic growth states in the Southeast, including Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas," Fox said.

Despite a 0.1 percent dip in the jobless rate last month in metro Dalton, the 12.6 percent unemployment rate in the Dalton area during February was still the highest among Georgia's 14 metro areas.

In the past 12 months, Dalton shed another 2,015 jobs, or 3.7 percent of its overall employment, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.

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