Utah's job growth declined in February to 2.3 percent, mirroring the nation's downward trend in employment growth, the Utah Department of Workforce Services reported Tuesday.

The 2.3 percent growth in the state's nonfarm wage and salaried jobs was a decrease from January's 2.6 percent. The department revised its January figure from its original estimate of 2.8 percent.

The department's chief economist Mark Knold attributed the decline to diminishing jobs in construction work.

"Utah's construction industry is shedding jobs," he said. "That means that not only have jobs been lost, but the job-loss trend will continue."

He added that permits for new home construction have recently fallen by as much as 70 percent.

Economic factors that would halt or reverse the downward trend are not imminent, he said.

"When you look at the subprime mortgage issues and high Utah housing prices, it's just difficult to see 2008 being the year when they get sorted out and it all comes back into balance," he said. "You almost get the feeling like 2009 is the earliest you'd see something like that."

About 28,100 new jobs have been created in the Utah economy during the past year, raising total wage and salary employment in the state to 1.25 million jobs. Since February 2007, the U.S. economy has added 810,000 new jobs, a growth rate of 0.6 percent, the report said.

Knold said demand for housing remains strong because of Utah's demographics. But the construction industry will remain in a lull until Utah's housing prices decrease to be better in line with Utah incomes and current stricter mortgage standards.

"When housing prices fall enough to combine with lending rates to once again equate affordability, only then will Utah start to again build houses in mass," he said. "In the interim, construction will now be a drag upon the economy."

Utah's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate measured 3 percent in February, according to the report. Approximately 41,000 Utahns were considered unemployed last month, compared with 32,700 in February 2007. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the national unemployment rate dropped one-tenth of a percent last month to 4.8 percent.

Knold said Utah's unemployment rate could be in the 3.5 percent to 3.7 percent range by year's end.

"Going forward throughout this year, I would think there is nothing but pressure for the unemployment rate to go up," he said.

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com