Sonoma County's unemployment rate fell to 7.6 percent in February, reaching its lowest level since late 2008, in a sign that regional employers are optimistic about the economy's gradual recovery.

The county added 1,700 jobs in February, marking the ninth consecutive month of year-over-year job gains, according to data released by the Economic Development Department on Friday.

A variety of industries added workers to their ranks. Excluding the self-employed, there were 177,400 jobs in the county in February, up 6,300 from a year ago.

"The gains are pretty broad," said Robert Eyler, director of the Center for Regional Economic Analysis at Sonoma State University. "One of the things that happens in the recovery period is that you usually see generalized gains toward the middle or the end. It's the signal that we're basically refilling holes that are left by the recession, rather than surging forward with a whole slew of new jobs."

The local leisure and hospitality industry added 300 jobs in February, up 1,300 jobs from the prior year.

"We've outpaced our competitive counties in terms of the tourism sector, and in terms of occupancy rates and room rates, compared to Monterey and Napa," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. "The strength of the visitor industry is translating into jobs here."

There was growth in the long-suffering construction sector, where employers added 400 jobs in a month, although the data showed only marginal improvement over March of last year, up just 100 jobs over the year.

At least some of the improvement in the unemployment rate was due to people dropping out of the work force, said labor market consultant Linda Wong, but the numbers show that more people are getting jobs.

Sonoma County's improvement is part of a trend in the North Bay, Wong said. Napa County's rate dropped from 8percent to 7 percent. Marin County had the lowest unemployment rate statewide, with 5.4 percent. Mendocino County was ranked 18th in the state with 9.3 percent, and Lake County ranked 41st with 14.5percent.

Local employers in recent years have often hired temporary workers, feeling reluctant to commit to permanent hires. Lately, companies are proving more willing to make a commitment, said Courtney Dickson, vice president of marketing at Nelson Staffing.

"Employers want to wait to see how the beginning of the year is going to go, and then once they start to feel more comfortable that the year is going to go well, that's when we see hiring pick up," Dickson said. "It's exciting. We're hoping for a great year."

Within the county, the picture was mixed. Sebastopol and Glen Ellen showed the highest overall employment, with an unemployment rate of just 4.8 percent in February. Monte Rio, however, showed a rate of 16.4 percent, the highest in the county, followed by Guerneville at 14.7 percent. Santa Rosa, with the largest labor force in the county, had a rate of 7.6 percent.

At its peak, the Sonoma County unemployment rate topped out at 11.2 percent in January of 2010, and remained above 9 percent until the spring of 2012, when it began a slow improvement.

"There's a substantial number of long-term unemployed that are out there, and honestly, the cards are stacked against them," said Steven Czegus, manager of Sonoma County Job Link. "You've got the tough job market, the emotional strain of being unemployed for so long, the discrimination; it's a lot to deal with. But we're doing everything we can to get people through that."

In addition to hosting a recent job fair which drew employers seeking to fill 900 jobs, JobLink subsidizes vocational training and works with employers to help pay wages for new hires.

The statewide unemployment rate in February was 9.7 percent, according to the department, and nationally it was 8.1 percent.

"We still have quite a ways to go on our recovery," Czegus said.

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @cbussewitz. You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.