Unemployment drops statewide and holds steady in South Florida, as hiring increases slowly. Florida jobless rate down to a three-year low.

The hiring front remains a frustrating place to be in Florida.

New numbers show unemployment inching down statewide, and definite signs of life from hiring managers as payrolls continue to expand in South Florida. But the pace mostly remains sluggish, without the big burst of new jobs needed to make a dent in unemployment rates that remain near historic highs.

Broward’s unemployment rate dropped from 8.3 percent in January to 7.9 percent in February, bringing it below the 8 percent mark for the first time since January 2009. The numbers that determine the rate also were encouraging: Broward’s employment rolls increased, as did the number of job seekers.

However, those are raw numbers and don’t adjust for the economy’s natural seasonal expansion in February.

Federal labor analysts provide a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Miami-Dade, which showed no change in unemployment between January and February. It was stuck at 10.3 percent both months, though the number of job seekers and job holders increased in both months, too. That’s generally a good sign, even if the increase in job applicants makes it harder to bring down the unemployment rate.

Florida’s unemployment rate dropped from 9.6 percent to 9.4 percent, the lowest since January 2009.

Seasonally adjusted payroll numbers released by the federal Labor Department on Friday morning show South Florida lost some hiring momentum at the start of the year. In 2012, the county has lost 1,800 jobs, including 1,500 in February, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Miami-Dade has lost 3,700 since December, though February eked out a tiny gain of 200 positions compared to January’s 3,900 loss.

Because both labor markets are relatively small — combined, about 1.7 million people work in South Florida — the monthly ups and downs of hiring can be misleading.

The two charts above look at a three-month average of payroll numbers, which are adjusted for seasonal hiring. The lines show steady progress since 2010 on the hiring front, but also just how weak the recovery has been.

Miami-Dade has gained back almost half of the 92,000 jobs lost since peak hiring in the fall of 2007. But Broward is up just 14 percent, having regained about 13,000 of the 90,000 jobs lost in the recession.

The two rebounds leave both counties far short of the “V-shaped” recovery that is the best-case scenario after a deep recession: hiring tanks, but then rebounds at a steep rate. At the moment, Miami-Dade looks closer to a very weak “U” — that is, hiring plummets, hits a plateau at the bottom, and then starts slowly moving upward.

But Broward remains stuck near its previous lows, with little momentum toward the upside in 2011 or the start of 2012.

Still, the hiring market is getting better compared to the start of 2011.

Miami-Dade added 19,300 jobs since a year ago, and Broward 5,400. Miami-Dade’s biggest increases came in the retail, tourism and healthcare industries, along with the employment category that includes temporary workers. The big losers: finance, government and construction, which appears to be accelerating its losses after hitting something of a plateau in 2011.

Broward showed broader but more modest gains across its industries, but the new jobs were wiped out by big losses in construction (down 3,000 jobs) and temporary workers (down 3,300).

Some experts dismissed the Sunshine State’s loss of 38,600 jobs in January as either a seasonal quirk or a payback for a strong December. For sure, the news was dour: Florida led the nation’s states in job losses and saw 42 percent of the 92,000 jobs created in 2011 wiped away.

February was better, but lacked the big rebound needed to silence doubters about the Sunshine State’s recovery. The state added just 10,100 jobs since January, which was revised upward to a loss of 35,400 positions. Florida businesses and governments employed 7.3 million people in February, about 72,000 more people than a year ago.

The chart below takes a three-month rolling average of the state’s employment rolls, showing the small gain in February wasn’t enough to compensate for the big loss in January.