The nation's economic boom continues to produce jobs for some groups, such as minorities and persons with limited education, who have had far more trouble finding them in the past, the Labor Department reported yesterday.

The overall U.S. jobless rate inched up to 4.3 percent last month, but the rate among blacks fell to 7.3 percent, the lowest since separate figures for blacks were first published in 1972.

Fifteen months ago, in April 1998, the national unemployment rate was the same as last month, 4.3 percent, and the rate for blacks was 9 percent. While the national rate has barely changed during that period, joblessness among blacks has fallen sharply.

Among whites, unemployment last month was 3.8 percent, less than half the rate for blacks. But the figure was hardly changed from the 3.7 percent rate of April 1998.

A strong demand for workers and the shrinking pool of unemployed workers has led many firms to hire -- and often to train -- people with less education and fewer skills that they had insisted upon in the past. As a result, incomes of workers in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have been rising significantly for the first time in decades after adjusting for inflation.

Unemployment among workers who do not have a high school diploma was 6.7 percent last month, unchanged from the month before but down from 7.1 percent in April 1998. That jobless rate was about 9 percent in 1996.

Since April 1998, joblessness among Hispanics has varied widely from month to month. It hit a record low of 5.8 percent in March, but analysts said that apparently was an aberration. By last month the Hispanic jobless rate was back to 6.8 percent, virtually the same as in April 1998. But since early 1996, while the national rate has fallen a little more than 1 percentage point, the level for Hispanics has dropped nearly 3 percentage points.

Average hourly wages for production and non-supervisory workers rose a nickel last month, to $13.23. That figure was up 0.4 percent from May and 3.7 percent from June 1998.

Commissioner of Labor Statistics Katharine G. Abraham told reporters at a news conference that the monthly changes in average hourly earnings are erratic and noted that the 3.7 percent increase over the past 12 months was substantially lower than over the year prior to that.

However, over the past year the second-largest percentage increase, 4.1 percent, came in retail trade, the major industry with by far the lowest hourly pay -- $9.07 last month. In many parts of the country, retail firms, which include eating and drinking places, are having a hard time attracting workers in tight labor markets because of the low pay and the lack of status of many of the jobs. The increase in hourly pay, which is benefiting workers at the bottom of the nation's pay scales, is a response to the shortage of workers.

The department also reported that payroll employment increased 268,000 last month, following a small dip of 5,000 in May.

The monthly figures for payrolls have moved in a sawtoothed pattern recently, weak one month and strong the next. Part of the problem has been unusual weather that caused hiring to diverge from normal seasonal patterns.

"Clearly such volatile monthly data must be averaged over a couple of months to make sense," said Maury N. Harris, chief economist at PaineWebber in New York. "In doing so, one sees a moderate slowing in monthly average job growth to 195,000 per month in the second quarter from 209,000 per month in the first quarter and 244,000 per month last year."

More of a slowdown is seen by looking at the number of hours worked during the April-June period as opposed to just the number of jobs added, Harris said. In the private sector, hours worked rose at an 0.8 percent annual rate in the second quarter, compared to a 2 percent rate in the first three months of the year.

The smaller increase in hours worked is consistent with PaineWebber's thinking that economic growth slowed to a pace of about 3 percent in the second quarter from a 4.3 percent rate in the first, Harris said. The growth figures will be reported by the Commerce Department July 29.

Such a slowing of growth is what the Federal Reserve had in mind this week when its policymakers raised short-term interest rates by a quarter-percentage point, but indicated in an announcement that it would watch economic developments before taking any further action on rates.

While the payroll gain in yesterday's report was somewhat stronger than many analysts expected, economist Stan Shipley of Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York said it wouldn't push the Fed toward raising rates because "the unemployment rate has stabilized and hourly wage gains are non-threatening for inflation."

Most of last month's increase in payroll employment came in service industries. For example, employment in business services such as temporary help agencies and computer and data processing firms rose by 43,000 jobs.

Retail jobs increased by 49,000, mostly at eating and drinking places. In construction, where payrolls dropped 39,000 in May, about 26,000 positions were regained.

On the other hand, manufacturing payrolls continued a long-term decline, losing another 35,000 jobs last month. Since March 1998, manufacturing has lost almost half a million jobs.

"Factory losses were widespread in June," Abraham said. "In durable goods, both electrical equipment and aircraft manufacturing experienced notable job losses. Within nondurable goods, employment in food and kindred products, textiles and apparel continued to decline. Employment in the apparel industry has fallen by one-third since its most recent peak in November 1991."

A Jobless Record

The overall jobless rate rose a bit, to 4.3 percent in June, but the rate among blacks fell to 7.3 percent, the lowest ever.*

Unemployment, monthly

June '99

Black: 7.3%

Hispanic: 6.8%

White: 3.8%

*Since the Labor Department began publishing the data in 1972.

SOURCE: Labor Department