Md. employers, job seekers see rays of hope EMPLOYMENT

December 13, 1992|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

Will Matricciani, owner of the Fence Fair on North Poin Boulevard, was preparing to lay off some workers when he noticed that builders were already scheduling spring fencing jobs.

Business has been so bad that he'll still have to lay off some store workers for a couple of months this winter. But if builders maintain their schedules, business will rebound by April, Mr. Matricciani believes.

"I have to be optimistic," he explained. "Otherwise I'd put a bullet in my head."

After two years of gloom, Maryland employers and job seekers are noticing a few signs of economic recovery, albeit tiny ones.

It's spotty. Industries such as defense, and communities such as Baltimore City, are in funks that have no end in sight.

But the job market appears to be getting healthier.

A two-year decline in the number of Maryland jobs has halted. The state's unemployment rate dropped to 6.4 percent in October. And the average work week has crept up in the last several months, which means employers are asking workers to put in more overtime.

"If the recovery is not here now, it is very close," said economist Cliff Milligan, who follows Maryland for the Massachusetts-based forecasting firm DRI/McGraw Hill.

Mr. Milligan's model predicts that Maryland's job market won't bounce back as fast as the nation's. And Baltimore City, whose unemployment rate was 10 percent in October, will continue to lag the state.

But he says Maryland will end 1992 with more jobs than it had a year ago. And the number of jobs will probably grow by 1 percent in 1993.

DRI projects a 1.4 percent increase in jobs for the U.S. next year. But Maryland's overall unemployment rate isn't as bad as the nation's, which was 7.2 percent in November.

The first businesses to see job gains will be services, stores, wholesalers, communication companies and some manufacturers, Mr. Milligan predicts.

That's backed up by employers around the region.

Although defense contractors such as Westinghouse Electric Corp. are still suffering from cutbacks, others -- ranging from supermarket chains to high-tech companies such as Rolm Inc. -- plan to expand.

Local temporary employment agencies have seen a surprising jump in demand for light industrial workers and skilled office workers, including medical secretaries and computer programmers.

Some local Manpower Services Inc. offices found record demand for temporary workers this fall. And now they are having more difficulty recruiting more highly skilled workers for specialized jobs, says Mary Jo Shackleford, spokeswoman for Manpower's Baltimore region.

"The increases in demand we've seen are pretty typical with coming out of a recession," she said.

But some job seekers aren't convinced the recovery is here.

Alma Allen, 55, has been out of work since she lost her banking job in October of 1991. "I don't see it," she said of the much-discussed recovery.

She's gotten a few temporary jobs, but that has been barely enough to keep her off the streets, she says. The East Baltimore woman says she needs a permanent job, with health insurance and benefits.

She knows there are more jobs in the suburbs than in the city. But after a year of unemployment, she can't afford the bus fare to the counties to search for jobs.

"Do I spend money on bus fare or do I buy a loaf of bread?" she asked.

And it takes more than a few weeks of good economic statistics to convince business people such as Charlie Bangert to hire.

Mr. Bangert, who has run White Marsh TV Sales and Service for 25 years, says his receipts have risen a respectable 10 percent recently. And he said that as he drives around the countryside to repair televisions, "I see more Christmas lights."

"It is not a golden sunshiny day, but there are a lot less clouds."

But that won't mean new jobs any time soon. At best, Mr. Bangert will give his part-time workers more hours.

That's why economists say recoveries seem like leprechauns: Only the lucky get to see them at first.

Though economists often are quick to call a recovery, job seekers are slow to believe, because employment is one of the last things to rebound, says Chang M. Kong, an economist at Towson State University. Employers who have suffered through a downturn have to see a significant rebound in sales and profits, and high overtime bills for workers, before they add staff.

And though the recovery will come slowly to Maryland because of the state's overreliance on government and defense employers, signs of the recovery are popping up, he says. "Consumer confidence is up, the unemployment rate is down and there has been a tremendous increase in housing starts."

Eventually, job seekers will see evidence of the recovery, too, Mr. Kong insists.

"They just don't feel it yet. . . . But it looks good. We are on the verge of taking off."

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