Maine could return to pre-recession job levels by 2015 — two years earlier than previously forecast — as its economy begins to show signs of life and the nation’s economy signals a faster-than-expected recovery, says the nonprofit New England Economic Partnership.

“Beyond 2012, job growth accelerates along with the national economy in 2013-16 to a rate of 1 percent per year or more, a growth rate not seen in Maine in more than a decade,” the partnership says in its economic forecast.

The previous forecast was for the recovery to reach pre-recessionary levels by 2017. The change is driven primarily by a shift in the national outlook, the partnership says.

“Maine was not hit as bad during the recession; we won’t bounce back as quickly either. We don’t have as far to go to get back to normal,” said Charles Colgan, professor of public policy and management at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.

Nationally, the economy continues to grow at “a solid if less than exciting pace,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, a unit of Moody’s Corp.

Employment in the U.S. could expand by more than 2 million jobs this year and next, Zandi said. With slow growth in the labor force, that should be enough to push the U.S. unemployment rate below 8 percent by the end of 2012, and closer to 7 percent by the end of 2013.

For New England, the economy continues to grow slowly, said the New England Economic Partnership. The region’s unemployment rate is expected to remain below the U.S. average, but stay above 6 percent until 2015.

“Weakness in the housing market is anticipated to remain a deterrent to economic recovery. Declining or flat median housing prices are expected to continue in New England until mid-2012 and then increase only modestly,” the group said.

The fastest-growing sectors in New England include high technology, professional and business services, and private education and health care services. Manufacturing employment in the region is growing after a long period of extended decline, the group said.

In Maine, there will be a net loss of government jobs, and a net reduction in the construction, manufacturing, trade, transportation and utilities, and information sectors, the group said.

Pockets of growth will come from education and health services, leisure and hospitality, and professional and business services, said Colgan.

“Maine is behind Massachusetts and New Hampshire, which essentially act as one economy. That economy has had robust growth because of technology-led growth,” Colgan said. “Connecticut still suffers from its connection to New York and the financial crisis.”

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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