Vermont's unemployment rate fell again in January, dropping to 4 percent.

The rate is low compared to the 6.6 percent national average - the fifth-lowest in the nation and the lowest in New England.

It was the fourth monthly decrease in a row in the state's unemployment rate, according to the latest numbers from the Department of Labor. And the state gained about 350 workers - the first increase in the labor force since late 2011, though the numbers are subject to revision.

"The January numbers start the year on a positive note," Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan said in a news release. "Hopefully we continue to grow a resilient economy with diverse employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for Vermonters. We are still working to ensure that all Vermonters can access employment opportunities and achieve wage growth."

The unemployment rate and labor force estimates are based on household surveys conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics before IBM announced its latest round of layoffs in late February. Any job losses from the Essex Junction plant likely will not surface before March numbers are released in April. February's report is due out in late March.

One of Vermont's economic challenges is the size of the work force. With the exception of January's preliminary numbers, the labor force has dipped in recent years after decades of solid growth.

Moody's Investors Service named the downward trend in job growth as one of Vermont's primary credit challenges in its October 2013 assessment of the state's credit rating. The state's rapidly aging population - a major factor in the overall labor trends - also topped the list of negative credit factors.

The ratings agency's sister company, Moody's Analytics, credits the tourism and food processing industries with helping to keep the state's economy afloat in the short-term.

Seasonally adjusted state data show a 6.8 percent increase in leisure and hospitality jobs since January 2013: the arts, entertainment and recreation sector gained about 600 jobs. Accommodations and food services filled about 800 positions. Food manufacturing is also up.

Durable goods manufacturing led the seasonally adjusted declines in 2013, shedding 6.5 percent, or 1,400 jobs. Construction is also down, by about 2.1 percent, or 300 jobs, since last January.