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Unemployment grew rapidly in the first quarter, with the jobless rate rising to 7.6% from 6.5% in the last quarter of 2008. The number of job seekers reached 228,000, the Central Bureau of Statistics reported yesterday.

There were just over 3 million people in the workforce last quarter.

Unemployment for both men and women rose at about the same rate, but the percentage of jobless women is still much higher than for men: 7.9% compared with 7.3%. The respective figures for the last quarter of 2008 were 6.8% and 6.5%.

The bureau defines the jobless as people who did not work a single hour during the week of the survey, but were actively looking for work over the four preceding weeks. Actively looking for work is defined by signing up with the Employment Service or applying for a job directly.

To meet the criteria, job seekers must be able to start work the same week they are offered a job.

No region of the country was spared in the quarter. The highest jobless rate was in the south, followed by the north, Jerusalem and Haifa. Tel Aviv and the center were the best places to find jobs.

The number of part-time employees who wanted but were unable to find full-time jobs rose 1.7% to 113,000 from the end of last year.

Most economic sectors showed job losses, with the largest coming in education, where the number of workers fell by 7,800 in the quarter.

The unemployment rate for people between 25 and 64 rose to 6.8% from 5.7% in the previous quarter.

Responding to the figures, the National Insurance Institute said it would start a new program in June. The plan, with the Finance Ministry on board, would ease the conditions for unemployment benefits when the jobless rate passes 7.5%. The improved conditions include a shorter period of work needed for being entitled to benefits, down from 12 months of work in the past 18 months to only nine.

The director general of the NII, Esther Dominissini, tried to sound optimistic. "True the rise in unemployment from month to month is steeper than in the past, but I feel that in coming months it will stabilize," she said.

Manpower companies and headhunters have said there has been a slight improvement in hiring in recent months, and the job market is dynamic even during the recession.

Attorney Yehuda Talmon, the president of the Lahav organization of the self-employed, was much less optimistic. Talmon said tens of thousands of self-employed workers are now unemployed, or almost without work, but they don't report to the Employment Service because they are not entitled to any jobless benefits.