Md. jobs scene tight Low unemployment of 4.4% leaves fewer for employers to hire

April rate lowest in years

One result: Labor is commanding better pay, benefits

June 06, 1998|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

An expanding economy sent Maryland's April unemployment rate to its lowest level in almost eight years, new government reports show.

The decline in available workers is apparently limiting the state's job growth, the reports also show, but metropolitan Baltimore finally seems to be surpassing Maryland as a whole in economic performance.

During April, 4.4 percent of Maryland's work force was jobless, the U.S. Labor Department said.

That's down from 4.7 percent in March and is the lowest seasonally adjusted unemployment rate since May 1990, when the state was starting to slide into recession. But it's still slightly above Maryland's 10-year low of 3.6 percent, reached in 1989. Growth of Maryland-based jobs reported by the government was sluggish for April, as it has been all this year.

The state had about 22,000 more jobs in April than a year previously, according to yesterday's reports.

That's growth of 1 percent. It puts Maryland far behind the employment expansion of Virginia, which is adding jobs at a 3 percent rate; Delaware, which is growing by 3.5 percent annually; and the country, which has been creating jobs at a rate of more than 2 percent.

Economists who follow Maryland said the official job-growth results might eventually be revised upward. Even if they aren't, the economists said, other state vital signs appear to be satisfactory.

"I wouldn't read too much into that April number," said Mark Zandi, an economist with Regional Financial Associates, a West Chester, Pa.-based forecasting firm. "The May number will look stronger, and I bet April is revised up. But still, Maryland's growth is lagging the nation. Part of the problem now is that unemployment is so low that businesses are having trouble finding qualified individuals to fill available positions."

Job counters in Maryland have previously missed newly created positions on first pass, including them in employment censuses only when precise payroll records become available many months later.

"I just wonder if it's really that soft," said Mark Vitner, an economist with First Union Corp., a Charlotte, N.C.-based banking company. "They're probably missing some of the job growth, because the jobs that are created tend to be in smaller TTC companies. The labor office has a very hard time counting all those new jobs."

Maryland's job growth has depended on small businesses to a much greater extent than has growth in other states, Vitner said.

"Fundamentally, I think the state's economy is on solid ground and will continue to grow and expand," said Zandi. "While job growth is lackluster, income growth is picking up. Most households in the state are doing very well. Given the low unemployment, labor is able to ask for greater wage and compensation increases, and they are increasingly getting them."

Whatever Maryland's record is, the Baltimore region seems to be doing better recently.

After trailing state job growth for years, employment in Baltimore and surrounding counties grew 2.1 percent, twice the state's rate for the 12 months that ended in April. That's slightly less than the 2.2 percent growth in the Washington metropolitan region for the same period.

"There were a number of years recently where the D.C. side of Maryland was collectively gaining more total employment share than Baltimore was," said Patrick Arnold, director of labor market analysis for Maryland. "That seems to be reversed."

With a 4.6 percent unemployment rate, metropolitan Baltimore has more idle, available workers than some other parts of the state do. In April last year, the Baltimore area's jobless rate was 5.3 percent.

Baltimore had an 8.0 percent unemployment rate in April, the highest in the region. Howard County's rate was lowest at 2.3 percent.

Yesterday wasn't the first time recently that the government had reported a 4.4 percent, seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Maryland. Preliminary figures showed a 4.4 percent jobless rate for August, but the measurement was later revised upward to 5.1 percent.

Maryland's highest unemployment rate during the 1990s was 6.8 percent, from February through June 1992.

Seasonal adjustments iron out fluctuations caused by weather, summer vacations and other factors, and allow economic statistics to be compared with those in the immediately previous months.

Pub Date: 6/06/98

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