Virginia posted its fourth straight month of shrinking unemployment, while Maryland's jobless rate inched up as the number of people unable to find employment increased in March.

The 5.6 unemployment rate in the Old Dominion represented the lowest share of jobless claims there in more than three years, ushering in cautious optimism from Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell about the state's economic standing.

"Now, we must keep this positive momentum going," he said. "Virginia's economy is recovering, but it is still early. Too many Virginians still need good jobs. Our work isn't through until they are working again."

March jobs figures
Jurisdiction   Feb. jobless rate    March jobless rate    Job growth   

Virginia now has the lowest unemployment rate in the Southeast and is significantly below the national rate of 8.2 percent. Northern Virginia served as the economic engine of the state, offsetting job losses downstate and in more rural areas. The state picked up 32,200 jobs in March.

At the same time, the Maryland unemployment rate rose from 6.5 percent to 6.6 percent, despite adding 1,500 jobs -- all of them in the private sector. The slight increase in those jobs was muted by the loss of 2,700 jobs in the public sector, as local jurisdictions continue to downsize departments amid budget crunches.

Still, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said the state was "moving in the right direction."

"Maryland has also recovered 80 percent of the jobs lost during the Bush recession, nearly double the national recovery rate," he said.

The two chief executives have cited their economic environments as proof that their policies are paying dividends.

McDonnell claims that by keeping taxes at their current rates -- despite fiscal challenges -- Virginia has positioned itself to attract the businesses needed to emerge from the grip of the recession of years past. And O'Malley counters that without his investments in education and other core services, the hemorrhaging of public-sector jobs would have been worse.

The D.C. unemployment rate remained at 9.8 percent, as the city picked up 4,000 new jobs. But the jobless claims there remain stubbornly well above the national average.

Nationwide, the pace of hiring slowed, as just 29 states in March reported job gains. In February, 42 states added jobs.