MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) â¿¿ Alabama's unemployment rate rose to 7.2 percent in February, but it was lower than neighboring states. The preliminary rate announced by the state Department of Labor was up from 6.9 percent in January and is equal to the rate a year ago. The number of unemployed people looking for work grew by more than 6,000 from January to 154,885. Even with the increase, Alabama's rate was lower than its neighbors. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said Florida measured 7.7 percent, Tennessee 7.8 percent, Georgia 8.6 percent and Mississippi 9.6 percent. The national rate was 7.7 percent. State Labor Commissioner Tom Surtees said Friday the jobless rate went up even though the number of people working in the state increased by about 3,300. That's because the number of people in the workforce grew by about 9,500. Surtees said it's a positive sign when people who had quit looking for work and dropped out of the work force start looking again. "This tells us that some people are regaining confidence in the job market and are looking for work again," he said. Last year, Alabama had some months where the jobless rate went down, but it was due in part to the unemployed giving up on finding a job and dropping out of the work force. As the economy picks up, those people often resume hunting a job and get counted in the unemployment statistics again. Surtees said Alabama had 17,108 people filing new claims for unemployment benefits in February, compared to 34,560 in January and 18,289 in January 2012. Alabama saw increased employment in government, professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, manufacturing and construction, among others. Financial and real estate sectors saw a decline. Counties with the lowest unemployment rates were Shelby at 5.6 percent, Lee at 6.4 percent and Blount at 6.5 percent. Counties with the highest rates were Wilcox at 17.6 percent, Lowndes at 14.5 percent, and Dallas at 13.8 percent.