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Preliminary figures show that Washington gained an unexpectedly strong 24,100 payroll jobs in January, but state economists are skeptical job growth was really that strong.

The jobs figure likely will be revised lower in coming months, state labor economist Joe Elling said Wednesday. Washington’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for January held steady at 7.5 percent, as December’s rate was revised downward by a tenth of a percentage point.

The jobless rate fell in metro Seattle, to 6.3 percent from December’s revised rate of 6.4 percent, according to the report from the state Employment Security Department.

Elling noted that it’s been more than 17 years since the state gained 24,000 jobs in one month, and that monthly growth has averaged close to 5,000 jobs for the past year.

January data are especially prone to large revisions, he added. Workers who have the holidays off can get missed in the November and December surveys, then reappear in January. And college students who are on break in December return to campus jobs after the New Year, further skewing the numbers.

Still, he said Washington’s job market has been strengthening in recent months.

“The recovery in the state seemed to gain momentum over the course of 2012, with much of the growth centered in the Puget Sound region,” he said. “The outlook remains pretty favorable for continued growth in the state economy.”

Unemployment has fallen faster in metro Seattle, which comprises King and Snohomish counties, than in the state as a whole.

The local jobless rate has fallen by 1.3 percentage points over the past 12 months, versus a 1 percentage point decline in the statewide rate.

Also, the local labor force — all employed people plus those unemployed and looking for work — has been holding steady at just over 1.5 million.

By contrast, the state’s overall civilian labor force has been trending gradually lower since the Great Recession hit, indicating that tens of thousands of Washingtonians have stopped looking for work.

The nonfarm-payroll numbers, which are based on a survey of employers, show leisure and hospitality industries gaining 4,600 workers in January, retailers adding 4,000 workers, and professional and business services growing by 3,200 workers.

Government payrolls, which have shrunk substantially since the financial crisis hit, grew by 5,500 jobs, according to the report. That could be due in part to a bump in hiring at the start of the legislative session, Elling said.

The only sector showing job losses in January was education and health services, which shed 1,500 jobs. That was largely due to a 1,100-job drop in private-education services, the department said.

Separately, agricultural employers shed 460 jobs in January, bringing the statewide total to 66,820 — still nearly 9,200 more ag jobs than a year earlier.

While the payroll numbers are based on the employer survey, the unemployment rate is derived from a separate survey of households — not, as is sometimes thought, by counting how many people are receiving unemployment benefits.

An estimated 260,670 Washingtonians were unemployed and looking for work in January, 750 more than in December.

More than 151,300 people claimed unemployment benefits in the month, the department said. Benefits ran out for 3,349 people in January, bringing the total to 128,808 since July 2008.

Data watchers won’t need to wait long to see if the January figures are revised: The employment report for February, which will include updates to the January numbers, is scheduled to be released March 20.

Drew DeSilver: 206-464-3145 or