Md. job market strong, unlike rest of U.S.

Hiring: The state's employers have lots of job openings at a time when the nation's payroll is barely growing.

August 07, 2004|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, Batching Systems owner Don Wooldridge was agonizing over how many of his 72 employees would have to be laid off as orders for the company's patented sorting and counting machines dried up.

Yesterday, he was worrying over how he was going to find enough people to fill all of the positions he has open.

The Prince Frederick company's reversal after three years of pain is indicative of how Maryland's job market continues to rebound from recession even as job growth in the rest of the nation appears to have stalled.

While the Labor Department said yesterday that America's payroll grew by a skimpy 32,000 jobs in July, employers across Maryland report that they are fattening their payrolls with the help of a diverse economy and robust government spending on defense, homeland security and research.

The state's military-industrial economy is hiring at full tilt, and that is helping to fuel a surge in demand for everything from accountants and lawyers to machine builders and software engineers. June figures pegged the state's unemployment rate at 3.9 percent as employers added 5,700 jobs.

The spending trend has trickled down to Wooldridge and the small company he and his wife launched on their dining room table in 1989.

"Our orders this year are up almost double what they were last year," Wooldridge said. "Our backlog used to be running 18 months ago at about five to six weeks. Now, our backlog is almost six months."

That's in stark contrast to 2001, when demand for the company's $750,000 to $1 million machines plunged by more than 60 percent after terrorists struck in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. The company let go all but 28 of its employees and spent hours of downtime trying to come up with new products to sell once the market recovered.

Today, the company is back to 50 employees, with plans to hire a handful of engineers, several machine assemblers, a production manager and a new plant manager, among others.

"We're cautious about hiring now because no one wants to hire somebody and then lay them off," he said. "But I'm finding the economy is picking up."

State officials share Wooldridge's sense of cautious optimism about the state's long-term economic prospects.

"There's always concern that any type of economic downturn is going to hit all states, so to believe we are totally insulated is false," said James D. Fielder Jr., state secretary of labor. "But we believe that our diversity is going to add to our capabilities, and that's certainly there."

Anirban Basu, chief executive of Sage Policy Group, an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore, said the number of manufacturing and other jobs are still off their peak reached before the last recession, but Maryland and the Washington metropolitan area are among the strongest job markets in the nation.

A big driver, he said, is the roughly $500 billion in red ink the federal government is spending to fight terrorists and finance homeland security projects.

"There is no sign the federal government is going to slow spending in any way," he said. "We in Maryland probably do not fully understand some of the pain taking place in the balance of the country."

While Democrats and Republicans argue over the meaning of the latest jobs numbers, Maryland stands to benefit regardless of who wins the election, Basu said.

If President Bush wins re-election, government spending will likely continue at its present pace. If Sen. John Kerry wins, Basu said, tax cuts might be pulled back and directed into government programs that could benefit the region's economy.

Some of the spending is reflected in the 2,000 jobs Northrop Grumman's Electronic Systems sector plans to fill over the next year. About 70 percent of those jobs will be in Maryland. Of the total, about 1,600 will be salaried, professional and managerial jobs. The other 400 will be hourly wage and union workers, the company said yesterday.

"It [the hiring] is significantly higher than first expected," said Doug Cantwell, a spokesman for the company in Linthicum. "They did increase it at the mid-year point."

The Maryland division makes radar systems for fighter aircraft and electronics used in surveillance systems. Recent hiring has been fueled in part by increased spending on homeland security, Cantwell said.

Government spending also is showing up in Annapolis, where Windermere Group LLC is working on an 11-story headquarters building that will free up room for its growing staff of 400.

The company, which provides engineering and software for homeland security applications, expects to increase its staff by 100. In addition to its government work, the company has commercial contracts with Ralph Lauren Polo Corp., Sony Corp. and several other large companies.

"I don't foresee this being short-term [hiring]," said Beth Crandall, executive director of business operations for Windermere. "It's a continuous hiring process that I foresee over the next two to three years."

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