DULUTH – The Duluth area's employment recovery advanced in September, with the largest increase in jobs since February.

The Duluth metro area — St. Louis, Carlton and Douglas (Wis.) counties — gained more than 2,100 jobs since August, a 1.6% increase, according to Minnesota figures released this week.

The majority of those new jobs were in education and health services industries, the retail trade sector and local and state government.

The area's unemployment rate also fell dramatically to 3.1% from 3.8%. It's the lowest rate for the region since September 2018, which was the lowest point in the past decade, said Carson Gorecki, regional labor analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

The end of COVID-19 pandemic-related unemployment benefits in September and the start of the school year appear to have affected employment, he said, but October data will be more telling. The state's unemployment rate is 3.7%.

Essentia Health, one of the region's largest employers, hired 137 people in September and 181 so far in October in its northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin facilities.

The health care system still has openings, said chief human resources officer Diane Davidson, but is "pleased" with recent hiring efforts, as it looks for ways to address anticipated labor shortages accelerated by the pandemic.

While the Duluth metro's labor force remains below pre-pandemic levels, its growth in September is "heartening," Gorecki said.

"It was a positive month," he said, considering labor force and employment declines in recent months. The area has recovered 78% of the jobs lost during COVID-19 shutdowns. Part of the low unemployment rate is attributed to the number of people who left the workforce during the pandemic, DEED has said. Early retirements, fear of COVID transmission and child-care issues have contributed to a smaller workforce.

Financial, mining, logging and construction, and leisure and hospitality sectors saw job loss in September.

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450