State's jobless rate holds at 3.9%, but job creation slows

Md. was 18th in June, `still outperforming' U.S. in payroll growth

July 22, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Dionne Dyson hears that the economy is improving. She has yet to see it.

The West Baltimore resident figures she has sent out at least 40 resumes since she graduated with a degree in psychology in December. "I don't get any calls back," she said this week.

Even in Maryland, where unemployment has stayed substantially below the national rate through both recession and recovery, the rising tide of job creation isn't lifting all boats - particularly in Baltimore, where one out of five of the state's unemployed live.

The state jobless rate held steady at 3.9 percent last month as employers added 5,700 jobs, more than in any June since the boom year of 1998, according to numbers released today by Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

But significantly fewer jobs were created last month than the average of 10,000 each in March, April and May. John Hopkins, associate director for applied economics at RESI, the research and consulting arm of Towson University, said it's possible the recovery is slowing, though he expects that employment growth will remain strong the rest of the year.

"Maryland, not surprisingly, is still outperforming the nation," said Hopkins, who found that it ranked 18th among the states for job growth from June 2003 to last month.

Even so, 116,000 residents - inexperienced and experienced alike - wanted work but couldn't find it last month, according to numbers adjusted for seasonal variations in the labor and job market.

Areas of very low unemployment, like Howard and Montgomery, contrast sharply with pockets of much higher joblessness. Baltimore residents are having the hardest time of it: The city's unemployment rate stood at 8.7 percent, the worst in the state.

That was up sharply from 7.7 percent in May, according to unadjusted numbers - though it wasn't as bad as the 9.2 percent unemployment in June last year.

"I see that it has improved, but we still have a ways to go, we really do," said Dave Zeunges, job service supervisor for the city's Southwest Career Center, where Dyson has been coming regularly for two months in search of work. "There's a lot of people who need help."

Maryland has more jobs to go around now than it did in 2001 and the sluggish early months of the recovery. When unemployment swelled to 4.7 percent in March 2003, nearly 135,000 people were actively looking for work but couldn't get it. At least that many were jobless in any given month for most of the 1990s.

James D. Fielder Jr., state secretary of labor, said more than 38,000 jobs have been created since the beginning of the year, "showing really uninterrupted job growth for 2004."

May's unemployment rate, originally estimated at 4 percent, was revised downward to 3.9 percent today by the state labor department as it found evidence of 600 more jobs - another sign of stabilization.

"But that's of little comfort to those in unemployment lines," Hopkins noted. "A recovering economy tends to favor those in the labor pool that have the most and the best skills, and typically those are the people that have jobs."

Some people who were happy just to stay employed during the recession will be interested in shopping around for a new situation now that things are picking up, he said. That means more competition, particularly as the "discouraged workers" who had given up looking for jobs jump back into the market.

"It doesn't benefit the people who are unemployed," Hopkins said.

Across the state in June, unemployment was lowest in the Washington suburbs - particularly Montgomery, with a 2.5 percent jobless rate. But several Eastern Shore communities also performed well, such as Kent (2.7 percent) and Talbot (3 percent), while Washington County in Western Maryland turned in a 3.8 percent rate.

Unemployment was 3.4 percent in Anne Arundel, 4.5 percent in Baltimore County, 2.8 percent in Carroll, 4 percent in Harford and 2.7 percent in Howard.

Job searchers in the city - with unemployment about double that of the surrounding suburbs - found they had something in common this week even coming from very different backgrounds.

West Baltimore resident Jeremy Walker, 19, who recently earned his high school equivalency, searched for jobs on Tuesday in the Southwest Career Center and was discouraged that everything he looked at either required a higher degree or years of experience.

At another computer in an adjoining room, Woodlawn resident Marva Wright was equally frustrated - and she has those years of experience, 27 to be exact. She's been looking for five months since she was laid off from an information technology job with Honeywell.

Wright sighs deeply when she thinks about the number of resumes she has sent out - about 60 - and number of calls they've generated. None.

From her perspective, the economy isn't getting better.

"More companies are downsizing," she speculated, "but I think they're doing it under cover."

As Dyson, 29, prepared to e-mail yet another resume this week, she said she has shifted her goal to deal with disappointing results.

"Right now I'm looking for a temp job," she said.

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