Chester County's jobless rate jumped in February, from 2.9 percent in January to 3.3 percent in February.

These and other employment-related statistics were released Monday by the state Department of Labor and Industry.

In February, 8,500 Chester County residents were unemployed, versus 7,400 in January. (All statistics are seasonally adjusted.)

The boost was mainly due to seasonal holiday hiring still counting as a factor in January but not in February, said Steven Cochrane, senior economist with Moody's Economy.com, a West Chester economic consulting firm.

What with hefty increases in gift-card selling this past holiday season, consumers often wait until January to redeem those cards, hoping to cash in on clearance items, Cochrane explained. As a result, many retailers retain their holiday salespeople through January to cope with added store traffic.

During the 2005 holiday season, retailers sold $18.5 billion worth of gift cards, up 6.6 percent from the $17 billion sold during the 2004 Christmas selling season.

On the up side, mild winter weather meant that most workers in the Chester County construction trades remained employed during February instead of being laid off, as is often the case, said Cochrane.

Statewide, the unemployment rate stood at 4.5 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis in February, up from 4.3 percent in January.

According to Cochrane, "A shift from 4.3 percent to 4.5 percent is not all that significant."

The general Pennsylvania trend finds the state's jobless rate trending downward ever since last summer.

The economy in southeastern Pennsylvania is healthy, Cochrane said, but has recently lagged behind those of the York and Allentown areas. These smaller cities and their surrounding suburbs are growing largely because they're now considered bedroom communities for, respectively, the Baltimore/Washington and Philadelphia metropolitan areas.

In February, the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 4.8 percent, seasonally adjusted, compared to 4.7 percent in January.

The national economy created a healthy 243,000 jobs in February, compared to 175,000 new jobs each month for several previous months.

National jobless statistics will be released Friday. Moody's Economy.com predicts that the economy will gain another 175,000 jobs - enough to keep the economy on the upswing but not enough to significantly lower the U.S. jobless rate.

Two clouds loom on the economic horizon, most economists believe: the recent run-up in mortgage rates, coupled with higher prices for gasoline and other forms of energy.

Red-hot housing markets in the Northeast and on the West Coast are already cooling, Cochrane said, with prices and sales in the south - from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas - still holding their own.

"If there's anything that can roil the markets and upset consumers, it's higher energy prices," Cochrane said. "Particularly as we approach the summer driving season, higher gasoline prices really start to hit consumers in the pocketbook."

Among Pennsylvania's 67 counties, Chester County had the third-lowest rate in February, at 3.3 percent.

Franklin led the pack in February, at 3 percent. Adams and Lebanon were second, at 3.2 percent, followed by Lancaster at 3.4 percent and Cumberland at 3.5 percent.

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