SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's unemployment rate has improved from the same time last year and remains much better than the national figure, new labor statistics show.

The new numbers indicate that 5.4 percent of Utah's labor force was unemployed in January. That's down from 6 percent in January 2012, and marks a significant decrease from the 8.4 percent Utah reached in early 2010.

The national unemployment rate is 7.9 percent.

Mark Knold, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said the decline in the unemployment rate in 2011-2012 was due mainly to people who stopped trying to find work. With the youngest labor force in the country, many young adults chose to get more education and ride out the recession, he said.

But Knold said the improvement in the unemployment rate in the past year reflects the fact that more people are actually finding work. The increase of 37,800 jobs from the same time in 2012 comes across many sectors, he said.

The 3.1 percent job growth over the past year marks the first time since 2007 the state has climbed back to the state's longtime average.

"We finally got all the jobs back that were lost in the recession, but we're still in a big deficit," Knold said. "It's going to be a multiyear process to close the gap."

It's possible Utah's unemployment rate may rise a bit in coming months as young adults who went back to college once again try to seek employment, Knold said.

State-by-state rankings are not yet available for January, but Utah had the ninth-lowest unemployment rate in the nation as of December. North Dakota had the lowest at 3.2 percent. Rhode Island was at the bottom of the rankings, with an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent.

The national unemployment rate of 7.9 percent is an improvement from the 10 percent peak during the recession, but still well-above the 5 percent that policymakers strive for during good times.

A private survey shows U.S. businesses added a solid number of jobs in February, indicating higher taxes and looming government spending cuts have yet to slow hiring.

Employers added 198,000 jobs in February, according to data released Wednesday by payroll processor ADP. And the survey revised January's hiring figures to show companies added 215,000 jobs that month, 23,000 more than what had initially been reported.

The figure suggests that the government's February jobs report, to be issued Friday, may come in above economists' forecasts. Analysts expect it will show the economy added 152,000 jobs and the unemployment rate dipped to 7.8 percent from 7.9 percent in January.

Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank, boosted his forecast to 180,000 jobs, up from 125,000, in response to the ADP report.

Still, other economists remained cautious. Many think huge snowstorm that shut down several northeastern states last month may drag on overall job gains.

The ADP report is derived from actual payroll data and tracks total nonfarm private employment each month. It doesn't include government jobs, which have steadily declined for the past three years. In the past four months, ADP's data has diverged from the government's estimate of private sector jobs by about 30,000.