The Washington region’s unemployment rate fell to 5.5 percent in February from a seasonally adjusted 5.6 percent the month before, one of the lowest levels among the nation’s largest metropolitan areas and well below the national jobless rate, according to data released Friday by the Labor Department.

The latest numbers suggest the area’s recovery is building momentum, though very slowly. The national rate stood at 8.3 percent in February and fell slightly last month to 8.2 percent.

Nearly 3 million people were employed in the region in February, according to the report, while nearly 175,000 remained jobless. This time last year, 2.89 million people in the area had jobs, while more than 177,000 were still on the hunt.

Employers in the region added a total of 11,900 jobs in February, led by increases in education and health services fields (5,600 jobs). The leisure/hospitality and information sectors each added 1,100 jobs.

The losers in February were retailers and trade (6,400 jobs lost) and technology and utilities firms (7,000 lost).

Over the last year, the region gained 36,900 jobs, driven largely by spikes in the education and health services sector and the leisure and hospitality sector, which added 14,800 and 13,100 employees, respectively.

Those increases helped counter employment declines in retail (down 5,700 jobs) and transportation, trade and utilities (down 3,900) over the same period. The federal government also cut 3,300 jobs in the last 12 months.

The Labor Department reports on the unemployment rates in its 372 metropolitan areas each month. The Washington metropolitan area includes the District and the nearly 20 surrounding counties and jurisdictions in Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland.

Nationwide, unemployment rates are lower than they were one year ago in all but 28 of those 372 areas, with three cities in Michigan posting the largest declines, each shedding 2.2 percentage points -- Flint, at 9.3 percent; Jackson, 8.4 percent; and Holland-Grand Haven, 6.7 percent . Bismarck, N.D., and Midland, Tex., tied for the lowest jobless rate at 3.8 percent.

Not seasonally adjusted, Washington ties Oklahoma City for the lowest rate among the nation’s largest metropolitan areas at 5.8 percent.

Several California areas continued to struggle with high unemployment rates, with El Centro posting the highest non-adjusted rate in the country at 26.7 percent, one of 11 metros in the state (out of 13 nationwide) where the rate remains above 15 percent.

In a separate release expected in two weeks, the Labor Department will issue a report on unemployment rates in each of the 50 states and the District.

Follow On Small Business and J.D. Harrison .