Two weeks ago, Pete Waterman spray painted a large plywood sign and propped it on his lawn near a bunch of tractors.

“Good help wanted.”

“To me, ‘help wanted’ didn’t quite explain what I was looking for,” said Waterman, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Sabattus. “I wanted to let people know I wanted something a little better than average; at least I wanted the person to think of themselves as being good.”

He recently had a man leave for a job with more hours. For Waterman, it’s coming up on summer, busy season, and milking and haying isn’t for everyone.

“There’s just not a lot of people out there that want to come in at 4 a.m. and get a wet tail upside the head, you know what I mean?” Waterman said.

But there were more than he figured. The sign was up for three days.

Waterman got 14 applications.

Hiring signs all over indicate the state is slowly climbing out of the recent, brutal recession, while responses like Waterman’s show people are still hungry for work.

The state’s unemployment rate is inching down. On Friday, it fell below 7 percent for the first time since December 2008. The Maine Job Bank, the state’s free job-posting service, reached 5,430 openings this week, an all-time high.

Pamela Morris has “Now Hiring” signs in the Books-A-Million store in the Auburn Mall. The general manager has a staff of seven. She’s looking to add two or three more.

“Our business is good, all things considered, even going up against a ‘Fifty Shades’ craze from last year at this time,” Morris said.

The jobs have perks, such as flexible schedules and a store discount, but few applicants have been ideal: They must score well on the company’s online assessment. She must like them. They must like minimum wage.

“I work a lot more hours” until the right people come along, Morris said. “It’s just not worth to it to bring on poor candidates because it drags everything down. It’s just better to wait it out and find someone that you really click with.”

Joshua Shea has his own litmus test for new hires: “Is this somebody I could be in a six-hour car ride with?”

The publisher of Lewiston Auburn Magazine and director of the Lewiston Auburn Film Festival is looking to double the sales staff for his magazine to four this summer and will be considering the first official hires for LAFF in early 2014.

“Looking at the numbers and how they keep growing, and looking at what humans are capable of doing, in my opinion we’re pretty much at capacity,” Shea said. “It does seem that people are in a better mood when it comes to money. It feels like when we sit across from our clients, people aren’t preaching doom and gloom like they were when we first started in late 2009.”

Loss, slow growth

The state peaked at 621,000 jobs in February 2008, according to Glenn Mills, chief economist at the Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research.

Maine lost 29,000 jobs during the recession; 6,000 have since come back.

Only 23,000 more to go.

Maine’s Census Economic Forecasting Commission has forecast a full return to the pre-recession number of jobs in 2016.

Many of the positions lost required a high school education or less, Mills said. He anticipates job growth to come faster in positions that require a college degree.

Figures released by the state on Friday showed April with a 6.9 percent unemployment rate in Maine, down from 7.3 percent a year ago and 7.8 percent two years ago.

Mills sees some comfort that’s easily overlooked in Maine’s numbers: The United States has seen a slow decline in the national unemployment rate since the height of the recession because people stopped looking for work. In Maine, it’s largely gone down because of actual job growth.

DOL spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said she attributes the Maine Job Banks’ current record-high listings to more people discovering the service, seasonal spring hiring and new jobs.

Last month, the Lewiston CareerCenter had postings for 586 positions in Androscoggin County, a broad mix of highly skilled and entry-level. It had 364 in April 2012.

Manager Mary LaFontaine said she suspects employers seeing an uptick in business first went back to layoff lists, then gave current employees more hours and “now they’re opening positions to the world.”

“We’re getting a variety of feedback,” she said. For the out-of-work, “my mantra has almost always been: By someone’s attitude I can determine how long they’ll be unemployed. If they have a good attitude — ‘I have great skills, it’s just a matter of time, I’m going to find the right job’ — typically those people are not unemployed very long at all.”

People holding out for the same job, same pay and same area are having a more difficult time.

‘Good for everybody’

Melissa Rock, marketing manager at Androscoggin Bank, has been happy with the number of applicants for seven open positions there. Two of the seven are for new jobs. They recently hired for another new position, a credit manager in commercial lending.

“We are pulling not only from Lewiston but from all over the state of Maine,” Rock said. “I think what we’re seeing is the economy is picking up in our growth areas, which is awesome. That means businesses are starting to grow again and starting to take loans again — that basically points to feeling good about a healthy economy, which is good for everybody.”

At Waterman Farms, Pete Waterman ended up hiring one student helper and one part-time worker from that crop of 14, in addition to hiring one man full-time.

“I’m actually hiring back a guy that used to work for me some time ago,” Waterman said. “Hopefully, it will result in less work for me.”