The jobs picture on Long Island is improving, but that improvement is still measured in losses.

The Island had 5,400 fewer jobs in March, compared with March 2009, the smallest decline since September 2008, according to state Labor Department data. And the March number marked three consecutive months of dramatically narrowing declines. The unemployment rate dropped to 7.2 percent in March, from 7.9 percent in February.

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More positive signs. Terri Alessi-Miceli, president of the Hauppauge Industrial Association, a group that represents about 1,000 companies throughout Long Island, sees signs that bode well for employment.

They include efforts to boost hiring, such as tax breaks for companies that expand staff and a New York State initiative to connect job seekers with green jobs. "Business owners are beginning to see some positive things happen," she said.

Big obstacle. But job growth hinges in large part on a consumer comeback, said economist Martin Cantor, director of the Long Island Economic and Social Policy Institute at Dowling College.

And consumers are still struggling with diminished spending power because of declining home values, high credit-card debt and record unemployment. "Our economy grew because of debt in the past couple of years," he said. "There isn't a new growing power in the hands of consumers anymore . . . The only way to generate new spendable income is to create new jobs."