The unemployment rate in the Washington region dropped in January to 6.1 percent from 6.9 percent a year before, according to U.S. Labor Department data released Friday, showing stronger job growth in most sectors but lingering problems in state and local government.

The decrease in the not-seasonally adjusted rate was higher in January than in December, when it fell to 5.7 percent from 6.2 percent. The difference in the January and December number should not be interpreted to mean that unemployment worsened during that time; the data have not been corrected for seasonal fluctuations and should not be compared, experts say.

Overall, the economy showed strong signs of recovery, with employment rising and unemployment decreasing. The labor force grew by about 10,000, while the number of unemployed people dropped to 186,400 from 210,000 a year ago.

“The economy is continuing to recover, albeit slowly,” said Benjamin Orr, research analyst at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “This is steady progress, and I think we should be pleased.”

Metropolitan Washington’s 6.1 percent jobless rate is still well below the not-seasonally adjusted national level of 9.8 percent for January, which dropped from 10.6 percent the year before.

During the 12-month period ending in January, the region showed a net gain of 40,800 jobs, according to Labor Department data analyzed by the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. The center projects that the region will gain 48,000 jobs this year then drop slightly to 44,000 next year.

While the region continued adding jobs in the federal government and professional and business services sector during the economic downturn, it suffered heavy losses in most other industries. But over the past six months or so, leisure and hospitality and retail sectors have been gaining more jobs than they lost. Construction has broken even for the first time since the downturn, and local economists are forecasting sizable job gains this year.

Local and state governments, however, have shown little sign of recovery, posting a net loss of 4,000 jobs from January 2010 to January 2011.

Declining property values and foreclosures have significantly decreased tax revenues, forcing D.C. and many area counties to cut jobs and some programs to plug their budget holes. During the past four years, Montgomery County has eliminated 1,254 jobs, officials said.

County Executive Isiah Leggett has proposed cutting 200 more positions to help close a $300 million shortfall in the fiscal 2012 budget, officials said.

“State and local governments have to operate with a balanced budget, unlike the federal government,” said Kristina Ellis, spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development. “There are certain things you have to do to get the budget down, and that’s why you see a reduction in the labor force.”

Sectors that expanded included professional and business services, up 15,000 jobs; federal government, up 10,000; education and health services, up 10,000; leisure and hospitality, up 9,000; and retail, up 7,000.

Besides state and local government, the other sectors that lagged were information technology, down 2,000 jobs and financial services, down 1,000.

Despite the sizable net gain in jobs, some recruiters depict a less optimistic economic scenario playing out around the region.

Steve Braun, chief executive of MRI Search Consultants, a recruiting firm based in Baltimore, said more of his unemployed clients from the Washington area are finding work. But, he added, the government data don't show that many of those people are taking jobs inferior to the ones they lost.

“Looking at things today, it’s accurate to say people are accepting positions of lesser stature,” Braun said.

A marketing executive accepted a lesser position and a $30,000 pay cut after a six-month job search, Braun said. “He was relieved that he’s back in the employment race.” But, Braun said, “some of the hiring institutions are capitalizing on strong talent accepting employment for lesser salaries.”

In another recent release, the Labor Department provided updated figures on the unemployment rates in the 19 jurisdictions making up metropolitan Washington.

Based on December data, Fredericksburg and the District had the highest jobless rates in the region -- 9.2 percent. Other rates include 7 percent in Prince George's County; 5.2 percent in Montgomery County; and 4.2 percent in Loudoun County.

Arlington County had the lowest rate, 3.7 percent. Arlington County is approaching its 3.1 percent level recorded before suffering massive job cuts from the recession.

The region surrounding El Centro, Calif., had the highest unemployment rate — 25.1 percent. Lincoln, Neb., had the lowest — 4.1 percent.