Carroll economy thrives, but some firms suffering


March 01, 1998|By MIKE BURNS

NUMBERS crunchers from Towson (don't call us "State") University came to town a week ago to paint a broad-brush picture of Carroll County's economy, and of its future. A macroeconomic tour d'horizon, academics would call it.

As is usual with economists' expositions, the presentation by Michael Funk of the university's Regional Economic Studies Institute raised more questions than it answered. Not to disparage the work of RESI, which has produced valuable analyses and forecasts of Maryland and local economies. (Indeed, with 90 employees, Towson boasts one of the largest college-based economics institutes.)

But the concerns of the audience at this Carroll County Chamber of Commerce breakfast appeared more focused on its own business concerns.

Carroll's job growth lagged in the first part of this decade, and is now moving ahead of the Maryland average: about 7 percent annual job growth, Mr. Funk ventured. Growth continues to be strong in government, health care, construction, restaurants and general retail.

In other words, mostly services, not goods production. But much of the Carroll job growth is in consumer services, where wages are relatively low.

However, the majority of employed people living in Carroll work outside the county. That makes the county more dependent on personal rather than business taxes and revenues. Carroll residents apparently earn more money this way; the county's average household income is $50,000, about 25 percent higher than the Maryland average.

Some people, however, feel the county should be doing more to attract industry and business to expand the tax base.

When they asked Mr. Funk the hard question of how this could be done, he mentioned the well-known factors: quality work force, transportation, taxes, public facilities, living costs. And, oh yes, financial sweeteners from government to close the deal.

How to gain good jobs?

That did nothing to spark the local economic development imagination. But the RESI statistics did restate a long-standing question for Carroll County: Should it do more to secure good-wage industry, or should it fully exploit its status as bedroom and farming community? But what about the individual job market?

At the tables, over sips of coffee, Carroll business representatives talked with each other about the microeconomy, about their companies' experiences. The stories demonstrated the complexity of the employment market, and how widely circumstances can vary. Is there a shortage or abundance of able workers? Accountant Joseph Tringali said his firm is flooded with resumes of qualified job applicants, indicating that at least in this sector no shortage of workers exists.

In another service sector, the case was different. Mary Browne of Copper Ridge nursing home said it is a daily task to ensure that staffing keeps up with a rising number of residents. The number of qualified job applicants is smaller, the openings harder to fill. Part of the problem may be that potential workers are looking for other types of jobs.

Across the table, Tom LeGore of 3M Co. recounted a more complex story. His plant east of Westminster is to close this year, with 95 employees losing their jobs. The good news is that half of them have already found work, locally or at 3M facilities in other states, he said. Plus, there's still time for workers to seek employment during the gradual shutdown.

The decision was not based on performance of the 70-year-old Westminster plant, but on 3M's decision to get out of the billboard business, which is the bulk of the local factory's work. No buyer could be found to take over the plant, so it will close.

The conversation also turned to other Carroll employers in the news, and the vagaries of the job market. Marada Industries in Westminster is an established auto-parts maker accused of hiring two dozen illegal immigrants to work its overnight production lines. From employee reports, the practice had been going on for well over a year before the Immigration and Naturalization Service raid last month.

These illegal foreign workers were apparently paid $11 an hour or so, like other workers on the shift. The problem, someone suggested, was that it was hard to get local people to work those hard nighttime hours.

Yet a Hampstead company is selling off two area plants that pay longtime employees $9 an hour, saying the operations are too costly. Jos. A. Bank Clothiers will shed clothing factories in Baltimore to concentrate on retail trade. The 300 employees won't lose their jobs because a large garment maker will run the plants, making them more efficient by serving more customers.

What do these diverse tales of job decisions in Carroll tell us?

Perhaps nothing useful for economic development and public policy. But the major point seems to be that job creation and loss is local, specific, sometimes determined by distant companies -- and doesn't always fit neatly into the big picture.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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