Mark Louderback of White Marsh is among the many workers frustrated by the way the economy's downturn has leached so many opportunities out of today's job market.
Louderback, 34, and a father of three, specializes in managing big projects, such as the installation of new computer systems. After leaving a full-time job in 1999, he spent two years as a contract worker, moving from firm to firm as companies rolled out new computer systems. His skills were in demand.
But five months ago, Louderback was part of a group of 35 who unexpectedly lost their jobs. He hasn't found a full-time project management job since and has been working a few days a week doing the actual computer installations on the big projects he previously had overseen.
Louderback symbolizes what the slowdown has done to Maryland's once-scorching job market, said Brendan Courtney, vice president and regional manager for Spherion Professional Recruiting, a recruiting and placement firm with offices on East Baltimore Street.
"A year ago, people like this were in the job market for [only] weeks," Courtney said. "They would interview one week, and decide ... which of the offers they wanted. Now, it's a totally different market."
Despite an unemployment rate that lingers near record lows and a state economy that even now remains fairly healthy, there's been a significant shift in Maryland's job market: The economy's slowdown has in some sectors converted last year's shortage of workers into this year's shortage of jobs.
The employment market in Maryland today is deceptively less inviting than it was last year at this time, when a labor shortage and a euphoric boom fanned by an Internet inferno often had companies bidding against each other for the most qualified candidates. Today, many area companies are leaving positions open for long stretches, and are enacting hiring freezes, eliminating vacant positions or reducing their work forces through buyouts and early retirement packages.
Maryland's economy skidded down from its peak less than - and later than - the overall U.S. economy. But Marylanders who step into the current employment market may be surprised at the drop-off in job opportunities, given that the most recently announced unemployment rate was 3.3 percent, experts say.
Area companies "have gone through quite a turnaround," said Spherion's Courtney. In the frenetic market of a year ago, "it was `Ready, fire, aim.' Now, it's `Ready, aim, aim, aim, maybe we'll fire.'"
The job market is even worse than that, said Mark Millman, president of Lutherville-based Millman Search Group Inc., a national retail consulting and executive search business.
"This is not a slowdown, it's a shutdown," he said. "It's across-the-board in all industries, even in service companies. Over the last 90 days, [the job market] died."
According to most search-industry experts, job seekers face more of a mixed bag: Some companies and sectors remain healthy and, in those areas, there may even be a labor shortage.
Ciena Corp., the Linthicum-based maker of fiber-optic gear for the Internet, is an example of a company that's so far bucked the downward trend in its industry. By contrast, Columbia-based Corvis Corp., in the same business, announced plans to cut 250 people.
"We're still hiring 20 to 30 people per week," said Ciena spokesman Bill Rose. "But it was close to 40 to 50 before the economy softened."
Other sectors remain healthy, too. The local banking sector is hungry for tellers and minority executives, said William Knott, president of First Union Corp.'s Maryland region. Northrop Grumman Corp., one of the state's largest employers, is searching for engineers and, for the first time in 10 years, is looking for experienced manufacturing workers, said Gregory L. Hodges, director of employment for the Electronic Sensors & Systems Sector.
"We have strong contracts; we are hiring," Hodges said.
In spite of such bright spots, the job picture is darkening Maryland's doorstep. And that cloud is moving across many sectors.
In April, for instance, Baltimore-based mutual fund manager T. Rowe Price Group Inc. fired 55 workers, most of them local, citing a need to cut expenses at a time when a slumping stock market had pushed down profits.
Dresser Equipment Group's Wayne Division, a manufacturer, blamed the "changing business climate" when it said in March that it would close its gasoline-pump plant in Salisbury and cut 300 workers. And Berry Plastic Corp.'s Baltimore factory, which makes container caps, spouts and lids, reduced its 450-person work force by 40 jobs.
Other possible problems loom.
Struggling Bethlehem Steel Corp. earlier this month said it would cut 140 salaried employees - or 5 percent of its nonunion work force - by the end of August and look for additional ways to conserve cash. The Pennsylvania company did not know how many of those cuts would affect its local Sparrows Point operation.