By JUDY LINSACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) â¿¿ California's jobless rate dipped to 9.6 percent last month, the lowest rate since December 2008 when the nation was gripped by the financial crisis, state officials announced Friday. The state's Employment Development Department reported California added 293,800 jobs in the past 12 months for a 2.1 percent gain. That outpaces the national job growth of 1.5 percent, keeping the state ahead for 2013 despite its slowly declining unemployment rate. The statewide unemployment rate fell from 9.8 percent in January after dropping below double digits this past winter. "After a long recession and housing crisis in which the state lagged the nation in job growth, California is once again one of the nation's job growth leaders," wrote Stephen Levy, director and senior economist at the Palo Alto-based Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, in his assessment of the latest employment figures. The state added the most jobs in February in areas that are traditionally strong in California, such as technology, tourism and construction. Construction jobs increased by 5,700 for the month, signaling renewed strength in the housing market. Levy said while previous months' job gains were regional, the increases are now widespread. The San Francisco Bay Area led the state with above average gains and Southern California saw year-over-year gains in Los Angeles County, Orange County and in the Inland Empire. Overall, the department reported nonfarm jobs increased by 41,200 during February, bringing the state total to 14.6 million. That's compared to only 4,200 jobs gained in January. The survey found jobs increased in the construction, financial services and leisure and hospitality sectors. But manufacturing, transportation and health services slipped over the previous month. The number of people who are actively searching for work and considered unemployed in California fell below 1.8 million in February for the first time since January 2009. That's down from 2 million last February.