Workplace remains 'as good as it gets'

Optimism: Except for manufacturing, the state is expected to add jobs.


January 23, 2000|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

Employment in Maryland is expected to grow this year, especially in the technology and services sectors, but the increase will not be as great as it was last year.

And while employment will likely be healthy as a whole, manufacturing is again expected to be the state's weak spot.

"Overall, this is just a terrific time for the Maryland economy," said Charles McMillion, chief economist with MBG Information Services, a D.C. economics consulting firm. "The strengths continue to be professional services, obviously the technology companies, and the universities have done very well. Maryland typically does well in a strong national economy because of the high-skilled, highly educated work force."

For the first three months of 1999, the latest numbers available from the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, Maryland had an average of 2.288 million jobs -- down 2.5 percent from the first quarter of 1998. That number shows only the number of jobs in the state and does not take into account jobs held by Marylanders in other states.

The number of Marylanders employed -- be they in the state, D.C. or surrounding states -- for the first nine months of last year averaged 2.8 million, up 2.4 percent compared with the same period in 1998.

The state's unemployment rate for the first three quarters of last year averaged 3.8 percent, while the first nine months of 1998 had a monthly average of 4.8 percent, according to the DLLR.

Margaret Murphy, vice president of the Baltimore branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va., said she expects the 1999 numbers to show a 2.5 percent increase in non-farm employment. The increase in 2000 is expected to be 1.4 percent, she said.

"It's about as good as it gets," she said. "I think we've had increased expansion and sustained at levels that have not been accurately projected. We've beaten all the good projections that have been made. It is expected to fall off a little next year to a more sustainable level. It's hard not to be extremely positive about what's been going on " For October, the most recent month available, the state reported an unemployment rate of 3.3 percent, which matched September's number. April of 1989 is the only other time the state reached such a low level. Nationally, the unemployment rate fell in October to 4.1 percent, a 30-year low.

Job growth in Maryland is expected to increase at a rate of 2.1 percent in 2000, according to Mark Vitner, who follows Maryland for First Union Corp. of Charlotte, N.C. But he said reaching that number could prove difficult with unemployment so low.

"We are going to add 50,000 jobs across Maryland, and a larger proportion of the jobs will be relatively high-paying, particularly those added in professional services -- computer programming, engineering, financial services and data processing," he said. "I think the outlook for Maryland is very positive."

Anirban Basu, senior economist with RESI, an economics and consulting institute at Towson University, also expects job growth this year of 2 percent.

"Despite growing labor shortages in a number of key industries, including among computer programmers, retail clerks, machinists and construction workers, employment growth in Maryland remained robust in 1999 and will continue to be so into 2000," he said. "With the exception of certain segments of manufacturing, hospitals and particular financial-service providers, employment is growing in virtually every segment of the economy and that also will not change in 2000."

Basu said part of the worker-shortage problem is due to students' and universities' lack of emphasis on vocational training.

"The focus on the American labor force right now is on computer technology and that is where the labor market has gone," he said. "Unfortunately, there are also tremendous jobs in the machinist sector -- people can make $60,000 and in Maryland they go begging for machinists. It's an issue of prestige and perception, but the ultimate prestige is a nice wage and job security."

Because the state has a high number of scientists and engineers and technicians, it is well-positioned to increase its exports, he said.

"Electronics companies are concentrated in the Baltimore-Washington corridor -- Ciena, Comsat, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin -- and many of those companies have focused historically on the federal government but today are looking increasingly at global markets."

Robert Sweet, chief economist and managing director of Allied Investment Advisors, said that mergers and acquisitions in the financial sector could bring some job losses, but unlike manufacturing workers whose skills are not necessarily compatible with today's hot areas, the displaced workers will likely be snapped up.

"Jobs lost in the financial area I think will be made up from expansion in the remaining companies," he said. "Manufacturing is really the only area that is not going to do well. I'd be hard-pressed to find any others that aren't going to be doing well."

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