Neoterik Health Technologies Inc., a Frederick County maker of respirators and gas masks, had 15 employees at this time last year. But as fears of terrorism and biological warfare grew, the company added 25 employees and its annual sales soared past $3 million.
"We're adding to Frederick County in an area that doesn't have a lot of employment opportunities," said Jo Vaughn, human resources and financial manager at Neoterik, which is looking to hire another 25 employees this year.
"Because of our work force doubling and because we want to attract people here, we've started offering health insurance to our employees. We pay for half and they pay half. We're trying to attract employees, and, hopefully, this will help them stay. We've been very, very busy."
Maryland economic officials hope that such good news in the manufacturing sector isn't as rare as it has been in recent years, and a survey released yesterday by two state agencies provides some reason for optimism.
Hundreds of companies said they expect to add a total of 500 jobs during the rest of this year, according to the third annual Maryland Business Survey.
Even though manufacturing's might in Maryland has shrunk to 7 percent of the state economy, the sector is considered integral because production companies buy local products and provide high-skilled jobs with good wages.
Maryland's manufacturing sector was not hurt as badly as that of the nation as a whole, the survey said. And Maryland manufacturers appear to be recovering more quickly, officials said.
"Manufacturing has been the weakest link by far in this recession, so this is very, very good news," said Pradeep Ganguly, chief economist for the Department of Business and Economic Development, which conducted the survey with the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
"It shows that something good is happening in Maryland."
About one-third of the 3,800 manufacturing businesses in the state responded to the survey. It was sent out at the end of April to gauge the economic climate for the six months before May and to forecast the subsequent six months.
Two prior surveys by the two departments focused on tourism and construction.
The manufacturing survey suggests that contraction in the sector probably ended in the spring. From November to April, state manufacturers had a net loss of 134 jobs. Hit hardest were companies dealing in printing and related support activities, fabricated metal products and plastic and rubber products.
Most companies said rising costs were the primary reason for the cuts.
Ganguly said he thinks Maryland manufacturing is primed for a rebound, based on responses for the rest of the year. Businesses that are expanding say they plan to add 888 jobs while contracting businesses expect to reduce their work force by 388 jobs, which would mean a net gain of 500. Combined with responses from the six months before May, a gain of 366 jobs is predicted for the year, the survey concluded.
Maryland Specialty Wire of Cockeysville, one of the companies looking to grow, recently hired seven employees.
"I'm only hiring people that are very critical, operators and engineers," said Sallie Kilbourne, human resources director at the company, which employs 130. "I don't want to have to lay them off in another year. It's difficult because everyone is looking for a job. I've got three inches of applications to go through."
"It's a very critical time for us," Kilbourne said. "We just bought some new machines, so we need operators to run them. We are hiring very cautiously because we have to make sure there are sales out there to support it."
Pulling and drawing steel rods to make wire, the company is looking to hire six more people for engineering, operator and sales positions paying $28,000 to $75,000 a year.
Much of the growth in manufacturing is expected to be at small companies employing fewer than 50. Small manufacturing companies lost 49 positions in the six months before May, but they expect to add 382 positions in the six months after that, the survey said.
Another survey of the business climate in leading sectors by the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Center derived similar upbeat findings for the state's economy. The University of Baltimore study surveyed 250 businesses across Maryland.
Richard Clinch, director of research at the Jacob France Center, said, "I think the worst of the economic downturn is over, barring any unforeseen circumstances."