By SARAH E. MORAN

Special to Tri County

Chester County's un-employment picture improved markedly in January, with the jobless rate falling from 3.4 percent in December to 2.9 percent in January.

In January 2005, the jobless rate was 3.3 percent.

The last time the Chester County jobless rate slipped below 3 percent was in April 2000, when it stood at 2.9 percent.

"These January numbers are strong," said Steve Cochrane, senior economist with Moody's Economy.com. "The fact that the number of unemployed persons is down to 7,400, on a seasonally adjusted basis, must be a new cyclical low. It's pretty remarkable that so few people are unemployed in the county."

At the Chester County CareerLink Web site and the unemployment-compensation off-ice in Coatesville, manager Douglas Schmidt is seeing many more job orders coming in than people who have just lost their jobs. Orders are strong in the financial industry, which includes banks, insurance companies and the like.

And, for the construction industry, the mostly balmy, dry winter cau-sed fewer layoffs during first-quarter 2006 than in past winters among electricians, plumbers, carpenters and others in the building trades, Schmidt said.

The unemployment picture statewide also improved in January, with the seasonally ad-justed jobless rate falling from 4.7 percent in December to 4.3 percent.

Across the U.S., the jobless rate also fell, from 4.9 percent in December to 4.7 percent in January.

The U.S. unemployment rate in February bobbed up a tick, to 4.8 percent, even as the national economy created a robust 243,000 new jobs during the month, versus 170,000 new positions in January.

Locally, expected job losses at Fibre-Metal Products in nearby Con-cord, Delaware County, haven't yet begun. The company, which makes protective head gear, will begin layoffs of its 136 employees next month and permanently shutter its manufacturing and administrative operations 18 months from now, at Route 1 and Brinton Lake Road.

At the soon-to-be shuttered Electronics Boutique distribution facility in Sadsbury, Ca-reerLink specialist Shar-on McCaffrey held eight job-search workshops in late January and Feb-ruary, attended by a total of 435 people.

GameStop Inc. ac-quired Electronics Bou-tique last fall for $1.44 billion. EB's massive (and new) $12 million distribution facility is being shut down over the next few months, throwing more than 500 full- and part-time employees out of work.

Said CareerLink's Schmidt, "We wanted to help teach these people, most of them hourly workers and in the pick/pack/ship operation in Sadsbury, how to look

for work. We taught them how to write a resume, as well as how to write cover and thank-you letters and use electronic job-posting sites."

CareerLink plans to hold similar workshops at Electronics Boutique headquarters in West Goshen, where about 250 are in the process of being let go. Workshop dates are still in the works.

Despite travails at Fibre-Metal, Electronics Boutique and other local companies where layoffs have already been ann-ounced, buoying the local jobs picture is a recent Manpower Em-ployment Outlook Sur-

vey.

The quarterly report found that Chester County employers ex-pect to hire at a healthy rate during second-quarter 2006.

From April through June, 23 percent of the Chester County companies surveyed by Man-power, a job-recruitment company, plan to hire more employees, while none expect to reduce payrolls, according to Manpower spokeswo-man Lauren LeVasseur.

Another 74 percent expect to maintain current staff levels, while the remaining 3 percent aren't sure of their hiring plans.

Local job prospects appear brightest in durable and nondurable goods manufacturing, plus finance, insurance, real estate and related services, according to LeVasseur.

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