The unemployment rate in the Washington area remained unchanged at 5.4 percent in February, according to a report released Wednesday by the Labor Department, as the region’s largest sector, professional services, continued its streak of relatively modest job growth.

Professional services added 8,800 jobs between February 2012 and February 2013. If the local economic recovery is to accelerate, economists say, job growth has to strengthen in this sector.

The education and health services sector, the region’s biggest job creator in 2012, also added 8,800 positions. The government sector added 8,300 jobs, even as its federal subcategory shed 2,700 positions.

The strongest job growth came in the leisure and hospitality industry, which added 11,700 jobs between February 2012 and February 2013. Economists say this sector’s recent strength is attributable to a boom in business at restaurants and bars as young adults move to the region.

“I do think the under-40 set, at some point, that’s what people spend money on. They’re not buying furniture and cars,” said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

The Loews Madison Hotel in downtown Washington has added 40 to 50 positions in the past year as it expanded its restaurant offerings and sought to become more upscale.

Jim Horsman, the hotel’s general manager, said one of its new restaurants, the Federalist, gets most of its business from area residents, not from hotel guests.

Krista Reiss, the company’s director of human resources, said the explosion of bars and restaurants in the city has made her job as a recruiter for the Loews Madison more challenging.

“We’re competing with a lot of these food and restaurant operators for this same talent,” Reiss said.

Other sectors that reported job growth include construction, which added 2,000 jobs, and financial activities, which added 4,400 jobs.

Of 39,700 jobs that were added in the region between February 2012 and February 2013, 31,400 were in the private sector.

The retail industry lost 1,100 positions.

The Labor Department releases seasonally adjusted unemployment rates for metropolitan areas, which allows the numbers to be compared on a month-to-month basis. Numbers of job increases and losses are not seasonally adjusted, so those figures are compared year over year.

The national unemployment report for February was encouraging, with the jobless rate slipping to 7.7 percent and the economy adding 268,000 jobs. In March, however, a meager 88,000 jobs were added nationwide, the Labor Department reported, with the unemployment rate slipping to 7.6 percent as discouraged job hunters left the workforce.

In February, unemployment dropped in 287 metropolitan areas, rose in 69 and stayed the same in 16. The nation’s highest unemployment, 25.6 percent, was recorded in Yuma, Ariz. Midland, Tex., had the lowest rate: 3.2 percent.