RICHMOND, AUG. 31 -- Virginia's unemployment rate dropped to 4.3 percent in July, the state's lowest jobless level in eight years and the best mark for the month in 14 years, officials said today.

Unemployment in Virginia fell by 9,200 persons between June and July to 129,700 and the jobless rate dropped from 4.6 percent to 4.3 percent.

"Rates this low have not been seen in Virginia since the early 1970s," the Virginia Employment Commission said in its monthly report.

July frequently brings higher unemployment because of traditional unpaid factory vacation closings, the VEC reported.

But this July's rate was low because of a declining student population -- meaning fewer summer job-seekers -- and the smallest number of unpaid vacation closings in recent years.

The overall Virginia unemployment rate, as usual, was well below the national average of 6.1 percent.

All five major metropolitan areas shared in the unemployment decline and each had lower rates than last July.

Northern Virginia was the major area with lowest joblessness rate, 2.3 percent.

Among the individual cities and counties, Fauquier County and the city of Manassas were tied for the lowest jobless rate at 1.9 percent, while Buchanan County in the Southwest Virginia coal fields had the highest unemployment, 16.4 percent.

The months of August through October are often the lowest period in the year for unemployment, the VEC said.

And current low levels of unemployment claims indicate that the jobless rate should continue to fall, with averages of 4 percent to 4.2 percent expected in the coming months as vacations end, harvest begins and outside activities continue.

During the week of the July survey, the state's labor force was down by 1,800 from the June record of more than 3 million as some students and school service workers left the labor force. Total employment increased by 7,400, so unemployment dropped by 9,200.

Officials cited the strong manufacturing sector as contributing to the upswing, with factory employment down by just 100 to 425,000.

"Considering the normal July unpaid vacation plant closings, this was an unusually strong showing with factory employment surpassing all previous Julys," the VEC said.