Maryland's net loss of 2,400 jobs puzzles experts

October 23, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Maryland experienced a net loss of 2,400 jobs last month, according to new federal estimates, puzzling economists who said they've seen no sign of significant layoffs in the state.

The loss, adjusted for seasonal variations, mainly was caused by a decline in the number of government positions, the U.S. Labor Department said yesterday. It followed a net decrease of 2,200 jobs in August, after what had been steady growth earlier in the year. State employment was about 2.5 million in September.

But local economic researchers questioned September's net loss of jobs because the state's unemployment rate as calculated by the Labor Department dropped to 4.1 percent from 4.3 percent. That improvement happened even as more residents entered the labor force, a healthy sign.

John Hopkins, associate director for applied economics at RESI, the research and consulting arm of Towson University, called the job loss surprising.

"The numbers were less than spectacular for Maryland, but ... it doesn't match with the message I'm hearing," he said. "Being out in the community, talking with business leaders, the economy is viewed as being strong."

Both he and Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research for the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, are skeptical of the estimate showing 6,500 jobs cut from government rolls last month. The Labor Department also reported a 2,600-job drop in leisure and hospitality. Those declines were offset by higher employment in construction, trade and financial services.

"I can think of no reason other than error [for] these figures," said Clinch. "These don't foretell anything bad for the state's economy, because everything that's doing well nationally we make in spades. ... Everything that is being hurt nationally doesn't account for a lot here."

The Labor Department's seasonal adjustment, which tries to smooth out the normal spikes in hiring and firing, could be to blame, he said. Without it, jobs in Maryland increased by 22,400 last month.

Dennis Lanahan, who oversees employment assistance efforts in Baltimore County for the Maryland Job Service, said hiring is beginning to pick up again in the hard-hit information technology field, but it's not back to the boom years of the late 1990s.

Overall, laid-off blue-collar workers are finding new jobs more quickly than their white-collar counterparts, he said.

Christina Ward, 23, stopped into the Job Service's career center in Eastpoint this week because she's having a terrible time finding steady work. She's been looking for a full-time position for half a year, and at this point she said she'll take just about anything, from filing paperwork to feeding hospital patients.

In a single week a few months ago, she applied for 35 jobs. Only one employer got back to her - simply to acknowledge receipt of her application. To improve her chances, she's hoping to train to be a medical assistant next year, but that doesn't get her out of the pinch now.

"Even when I'm going to school, I still have to have a job," said Ward, who lives in Essex.

Iris Samuels of East Baltimore is working, but she's feeling just as frustrated as Ward. Laid off from a $12-an-hour position writing parking citations in Towson for a government contractor, she spent six months looking for work. In August she finally settled for a job as a parking garage cashier that pays $8 an hour.

Samuels, 39, has three children, one in college. She can't afford to live on $8 an hour. But most of the openings she sees either pay less than she's making now or require a bachelor's degree. "I never thought it'd be so hard to get a job."

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