The unemployment rate decreased in Virginia in February, the first decline the state has registered since September.

Virginia officials said that several signs indicate a modest recovery is under way in the state. They include a decline in new claims for unemployment insurance, a sharp drop in layoffs and some recalls of laid-off manufacturing workers.

The February jobless rate was 8.6 percent, down by 0.4 percent from the January rate but still higher than the 7.9 percent level of unemployment a year ago. As usual, Northern Virginia registered the lowest unemployment at 4.4 percent, down from the previous month's rate of 4.7 percent.

The national unemployment rate in February was 10.4 percent.

The highest unemployment continued to be in the coal mining areas in Southwestern Virginia, with Buchanan County registering a jobless rate of 36.3 percent.

"It appears that we're seeing the first signs of a recovery in the unemployment figures," said William F. Mezger of the Virginia Employment Commission. Some of the increase in employment registered in February was seasonal, he said, but a heavy snow storm during the second week of the month probably held down employment in construction and retailing.

On the other hand, there were slight increases in employment in such manufacturing areas as textiles, metals, transportation equipment and food processing, he said.

"It was just a few hundred here and there, but overall manufacturing was positive," he said. "It looks like manufacturers are receiving some new orders now and beginning to recall people to fill them," he said.

Mezger said that the number of layoffs in the state had dropped noticeably since the first three weeks of the year. He also said that the number of new claims for jobless benefits fell from an average of 16,900 per week in January to 8,600 per week in February.

"The March figures are probably going to be lower, about 8.3 to 8.5 percent," Mezger predicted.

The unemployment rate in the Newport News-Hampton area dropped from 7.5 percent to 7.1 percent, and in Norfolk it declined from 7.9 percent to 7.5 percent. Mezger said those figures reflected a build-up in shipbuilding and defense contracting.

Richmond's unemployment rate went up slightly from 6.2 percent to 6.5 percent. Roanoke's rate declined from 8.9 to 8.5 percent. And unemployment rates fell slightly in the Lynchburg and Petersburg areas.