In a sign that Long Island's job market may finally be hitting its stride, the local unemployment rate dropped to 6.8 percent in March, its first decline below 7 percent in almost two years, the state Labor Department reported Tuesday.
Underlying the sharp decline in the jobless rate -- it was 7.4 percent in March 2012 -- were signs of a significantly stronger employment market.
The number of unemployed workers in Nassau and Suffolk counties dipped below 100,000 for the first time since 2011, a decline one economist called a significant milestone for the local economy. There were 99,300 jobless workers here in March, down 9,300 from a year earlier.
"When it falls below 100,000, it's an indication that a recovery is under way," said Pearl Kamer, chief economist of the Long Island Association, the Island's largest business group.
And the number of employed workers rose by 15,300 to 1.371 million.
That increase indicates that employment growth reduced the jobless rate, Kamer said, rather than people dropping out of the job market because they didn't believe they could find work. So-called discouraged workers aren't counted in the unemployment rate.
"The report suggests that the drop in the unemployment rate is real," Kamer said, "and that the preponderance of those who left the unemployment rolls did so because they found jobs."
Just last week, the department reported relatively strong job growth for March, when the economy had 17,900 more jobs than in March 2012. That report surveys businesses, while the unemployment report issued Tuesday surveys households.
The jobless data are compared on a year-over-year basis because they aren't adjusted to reflect seasonal swings in employment.
While the employment picture has brightened, jobs can still be hard to find.
Smithtown resident Harriet Ader, who is in her 60s, has been unemployed since January 2010, when she lost her job as a dental hygienist after the dentist she worked for retired.
Despite sending out more than 100 resumes, she hasn't found work. "It's been rough finding any kind of position, even temporary," she said.
Others are finding jobs faster than they expected.
After a two-month search, Riverhead resident Rebecca Collins, 36, began working at Island Federal Credit Union on March 4 and will head its Riverhead branch. She had worked at a financial institution for 17 years and, after deciding on a change, she prepared for a long job hunt.
But with the help of networking -- her former manager works for her new employer -- she got quick results. "I was very fortunate," she said.