Unemployment in state lowest since fall, 1990

June 04, 1994|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's job market improved to its strongest level in more than 3 1/2 years in April, squeezing the supply of workers so tight in some areas that employers are starting to complain that they ** can't find people to hire.

The unemployment rate fell two-thirds of a percentage point to 5.2 percent, its lowest level since October 1990, the state reported. Overall, 2,496,227 Marylanders were working in April, a gain of 1,621 jobs.

The steady drop in the unemployment rate from February's 6.5 percent is "a definite sign of economic recovery," said Mark L. Wasserman, secretary of Maryland's Department of Economic and Employment Development.

Mr. Wasserman said other hopeful signs, such as recently reported improvements in sales and wages, "reinforce the fact that Maryland's economy has turned around."

The job market improved in every county but Kent, where a temporary closure of a manufacturing plant pushed the jobless numbers up, the state said.

Even long-troubled Baltimore saw a slight improvement, as the number of city residents with jobs rose by 200 to 283,268 and the urban unemployment rate fell 0.05 percent to 9.4 percent.

The market for workers has almost reached its pre-recession frenzy in the areas that have long had the strongest economies: Montgomery and Howard counties. Montgomery County led the state with a 2.6 percent unemployment rate. Howard County's unemployment rate fell a third of a point to 3.5 percent.

On a seasonally adjusted basis -- which accounts for the typically strong hiring patterns during the spring -- Maryland's unemployment rate fell a third of a point to 5.4 percent.

While that's great news for the nearly 136,000 Maryland who were looking for jobs in April, some employers now complain they're suffering from a shortage of workers.

"It is getting worse and worse," complained Frank Cavey, manager of a McLean Rental shop in Gaithersburg.

Mr. Cavey said that he has been running classified ads for three mechanics' openings paying from $8 to $16.50 an hour for six weeks and hasn't found anybody qualified to fill the jobs.

He has tried changing the wording of the ads and moving them to different sections of the newspapers, all with no result.

He says he will try alternative ways of finding people, such as calling technical schools. But he's not ready to try offering more money to attract applicants.

In the meantime, he says, he'll just keep working short-staffed. The shortage "works the hell out of the people you have," Mr. Cavey said.

But even some of the complaining employers note that the job market is tight only in a few spots.

Chris Mir, owner of the Fantasy Hair Design shop in Columbia, said he's been trying to recruit an experienced hair stylist for several weeks.

"The economy is picking up" and without another stylist, Mr. Mir says, he must work more hours than he'd like.

If his shop were in Baltimore, he says, he probably wouldn't have any problem hiring. But Columbia appears to be too far for job seekers from the city.

While yesterday's news was especially good for the Baltimore-Washington corridor, economist David Walker says that for the state as a whole, he can only offer "cautious optimism."

Some areas, such as the lower Eastern Shore, still have very high unemployment rates. In Somerset County, 14 percent of the labor force was looking for a job in April.

Mr. Walker, who follows the local economy for DRI/McGraw Hill, said the best job prospects will be found in high technology and export-related businesses: "The port of Baltimore is a real benefit. People tend to forget the impact it has on the area."

But he warned that layoffs are expected to continue in the banking and financial sectors.

And Maryland's economy, which has lagged behind the national recovery, won't catch up soon, he said.

Since he expects the entire nation's -- and Maryland's -- economy to slow down again next year because of interest rate increases, Marylanders should expect continued slow growth at best for the next 12 months.

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