Just when experts thought Utah's unemployment level was reaching bottom, the rate dropped to 4.5 percent in January, the lowest mark in nine years, according to the latest Utah Department of Employment Security Labor Market Report.

Nationally, unemployment rose slightly in January to 5.4 percent, up from 5.3 percent in December, but the number of new jobs created increased by 408,000, the U.S. Labor Department reported.Utah unemployment hovered near 4.7 percent for five months in the latter part of 1988, fell to 4.6 percent in December and dropped again in January, a marked decline from the 5.8 percent rate a year ago.

The figure means the number of Utahns unemployed stands at 38,700, a 23.2 percent decline from the 52,400 people out of work a year ago, the report said.

The labor department's first major report of the new year on the U.S. economy's performance showed continued strong growth overall, something analysts have predicted would feed inflationary fears and perhaps convince the Federal Reserve Board to tighten its reins on credit.

A year ago, Utah unemployment was high because the labor market was generating relatively few new jobs, meaning that people who lost or left their jobs had a difficult time finding new work. New entrants into the work force and those re-entering were also unable to find work readily .

As the year passed, job opportunities became more plentiful. At the same time, fewer people lost their jobs.

An evidence of the turnaround was the average number of weekly unemployment compensation claimants dropping 23.7 percent from the 1987 average, the report said. That is the lowest average since 1978.

In spite of the good news, department officials said unemployment remains a bothersome issue in many of Utah's non-metropolitan labor markets. For people such as construction workers whose skills are not presently in demand, unemployment is a critical concern.

Utah's non-agricultural employers created 22,100 jobs in 1988, a 3.5 percent increase over January 1987. In each of the past six months, employment grew 3.5 percent over the same months a year ago, meaning that job growth, while no longer accelerating, has plateaued at a respectable level.

As usual, nearly 50 percent (10,700) of Utah's new jobs are in the service industries, but since November, the growth has moderated slightly, from a 7.6 percent increase to 7.2 percent. At the same time, employment growth in manufacturing increased 4,200 jobs and increased 4,600 jobs in the trade industry.

Business services, with 5,400 new jobs, continues to provide the bulk of job growth in the services industry. Education and non-profit membership organizations' employment increased by 2,200, the report said.