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PHOENIX -- Arizona's unemployment rate declined to 6.9 percent in April from 7.3 percent in March, marking its biggest month-to-month drop in three decades, state economists said Thursday.

It's also the first time since August 2008 that the jobless rate has dropped below 7 percent, the Department of Administration said in its monthly report. Arizona's unemployment rate hit a peak of 10.8 percent in January 2010 as a result of the Great Recession, and it stood at 8 percent a year ago.

The department's economists said last month's drop of 0.4 percentage points is Arizona's biggest decline in one month since September 1983. The national unemployment rate recorded a similarly sized drop from March to April.

Lee McPheters, a research professor of economics at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business, said the findings are a bright spot but the rate of job growth was weaker than what some expected. Economists had predicted at least 2 percent growth and a gain of 60,000 new jobs for this year, McPheters said. But the April data shows 1.7 percent growth.

McPheters said it looks more likely that only 50,000 jobs will be gained this year. Industries such as manufacturing, construction and tourism are not as strong as they could be at this stage of the state's economic recovery, he added.

According to state economists, Arizona added 4,300 nonfarm jobs in April, with both the private sector and government adding positions. The leisure and hospitality sector recorded the biggest increase in jobs, adding 1,500.

About 210,000 people were unemployed in the state last month.

With summer on the horizon- a time when people leave the state or put outdoor work on the backburner- seeing more job growth might be difficult. McPheters said more hope for strong growth will be pinned on the second half of the year. The state lost at least 300,000 jobs in the Great Recession and will take at least two years to recover them, he said.

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Associated Press writer Paul Davenport contributed to this report.

Associated Press,

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