LONG BRANCH, N.J. (AP) -- New Jersey's unemployment rate fell .3 percentage points for March to 9 percent, still higher than the national figure but the lowest it's been in a year.
Private sector employment was up by 10,400 jobs over February, according to the data released Thursday by the state's Labor Department and based on a survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic. The hospitality industry led the way, adding more than 6,000 jobs in March.
But the main reason the unemployment rate dropped was that fewer who don't have jobs were looking for them.
According to seasonally adjusted numbers, there were 4.6 million New Jersey residents who either had jobs or were seeking them in March, down by about 20,000 from the month before.
The seasonally adjusted numbers show that the number of people working — including those in the public sector — was down by 4,600. That decrease is relatively slight; unadjusted numbers show slightly more residents with jobs in March, but even more dropping out of the labor force during the month.
The monthly data have become a central part of this year's race for governor.
Republican incumbent Chris Christie regularly trumpets private-sector job growth. His likely Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, counters that too many New Jersey residents still lack jobs as the economy builds slowly after the Great Recession.
This month, the data supports both arguments.
"New Jerseyans still looking for work need to see real action to promote job growth in the Garden State, not more platitudes and tax cuts for the rich," Buono said in a statement, adding that the state needs to invest in education and infrastructure to create jobs that pay well.
At a news conference in Long Branch on Thursday, Christie said that's the response he'd expect from his challenger. "What do you expect them to say? 'Congratulations?'" he asked. "New Jersey is making progress, but everybody but Sen. Buono feels it, apparently."
The state's unemployment rate remains nearly 1.5 points higher than the national rate of 7.6 percent for March.
But it's the lowest the rate has been in New Jersey since the first three months of 2012. The rate has not been below the 9 percent mark since May 2009.
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