Long Island's unemployment rate fell to 5.3 percent in January, from 5.9 percent a year ago, the state Labor Department said Tuesday.

It was the lowest rate for that month since 2008. The rate fell even though the number of employed residents continued to decline. That suggests that people dropped out of the workforce, such as retirees or discouraged workers -- those who stop looking for work because they don't believe they can find any. Neither group is included in the local unemployment data.

The number of employed residents fell by 7,300 in January, to 1.36 million, extending the string of year-over-year declines seen throughout 2014. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed people fell by 9,700 to 76,400, the lowest since 2008.

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The shrinking workforce takes some shine off the good news of a declining jobless rate, one local economist said.

"Once you look at what is driving the unemployment rate, these results actually point to a slow start for Long Island's labor market this year," said John A. Rizzo, chief economist for the Long Island Association.

Shital Patel, labor-market analyst in the department's Hicksville office, stressed that the household data used to generate local unemployment reports are much more limited in scope than the employment reports, the latest of which was released last week. While the jobs report is based on a survey of 18,000 businesses statewide, the unemployment data are drawn from a Census survey of just 3,000 households.

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She also said it is difficult to pinpoint why the labor force is shrinking, because local data don't quantify such factors as discouraged workers.

Preliminary data the department released last week showed that job growth picked up in January after slowing to a crawl in December. The local economy was growing at an annual rate of 14,700 jobs in January, compared with the year before. That was up dramatically from December's year-over-year increase of just 600 jobs.

David Cross, 64, of Huntington, lost his job as a drug and alcohol counselor at Phoenix House in Hauppauge in October 2013. He has been unable to find a full-time job since and has to rely on per diem work, he said.

Cross, who has a B.A. in English, said that as an older worker he faces a changed employment market requiring updated job-search skills. Earlier this week he was at the Suffolk County One-Stop Employment Center in Hauppauge to attend a seminar on using Facebook for job hunting.

Around the Island, Hempstead Village had the highest jobless rate -- 7.6 percent. The towns of Oyster Bay and Smithtown and the Village of Rockville Centre all tied for the lowest rate -- 4.5 percent.