Eastern Shore can't match jobs to people

Despite rapid growth, many commute for higher wages

November 20, 2005|By JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS | JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS,SUN REPORTER

CENTREVILLE -- Fifty miles from Baltimore, 60 from Washington, Queen Anne's County is separated from the urban core by a distance both physical and psychological. About 60 percent of the county is farmland. That's also - not entirely coincidentally - the share of residents who commute outside the county to work.

Even so, the pace of job growth here was nearly the fastest in the state at last count.

Many of Maryland's outlying counties are seeing strong employment gains on the heels of population booms. Newly calculated numbers from the state show that eight of the 10 counties with the fastest rates of job growth from 2003 to 2004 are outside the Baltimore-Washington corridor - many on the Eastern Shore. The other two are Carroll and Harford, both on the outer edge of a metro area.

Exurban counties such as Queen Anne's want more jobs to cut down on out-commuting and to give young residents a reason to stay. But this growth is uncovering an apparent paradox: Worker shortages abound, even with all the newcomers.

One reason is that a fair number of new residents are retirees. But it's also getting hard to live in some of these counties on a local salary. With buying power that comes from better-paying metro jobs, commuters have helped push once-cheap homes to pricey metro levels.

Add that to the mismatch some businesses are finding between skills needed and skills available, and it's a hiring headache.

"Just the way big companies use headhunters for CEOs, small companies [on the Shore] are having to go after regular employees," said Memo Diriker, director of the Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network at Salisbury University. "In the short to mid-term, we're going to have to think seriously in terms of importing work force."

Some of the new jobs - like the people - migrated from cities and heavily urban 'burbs, the sort of move that frustrates smart-growth advocates. But a fair percentage of the jobs are home-grown, fueled by the expanding population.

Contractors are busily building homes, retail businesses are proliferating, hospitals are adding staff. On the Shore, Diriker says, 12 new households create the equivalent of one full-time job.

"It's an inevitable evolution," said Aris Melissaratos, the state's secretary of business and economic development, who has promoted a "one-Maryland economy" in which employers add jobs everywhere. "I think the incredible growth we've achieved in the metro areas in the past is driving growth to the outer areas now."

Besides Carroll County, where jobs increased by 3.6 percent, the top five are clustered in the swath of the state that starts in the northeastern corner and wraps around the upper Eastern Shore: Queen Anne's at 3 percent, Harford and Cecil at 2.9 percent and Kent at 2.7 percent.

By comparison, the number of jobs grew 1.1 percent both in the state and nationwide last year.

Maryland's urban corridor remains the chief jobs producer. The nine-jurisdiction triangle that runs from Harford in the east to Frederick in the west and Prince George's in the south claimed 80 percent of new employment last year. Even Baltimore, which lost tens of thousands of jobs in the past generation, showed a 400-job gain, according to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's newest numbers.

Economists are quick to note that it takes far fewer new jobs to produce a high growth rate in Kent County, with an employment base of about 8,000, than in, say, 450,000-job Montgomery County.

But Montgomery has an international reputation and a prime location next to the nation's capital, while Kent can't even claim that everyone in Maryland knows where it is. And it added jobs at three times Montgomery's rate.

Economic development officials attribute much of the growth in that county - and Queen Anne's to the south - to small businesses. There's Chesapeake Benefit Services in Chestertown, for instance, which doubled its employees to eight in the past year or so.

"You can make decisions about your business around quality of life and be in a place like Chestertown, and still have clients in the metropolitan areas," said Scott Livie, president of the company, a group health insurance broker that deals primarily with companies on the other side of the bay.

Like many businesses in the area, his is located in a house. Class-A office space is rare in Kent and Queen Anne's; the water towers are the tallest things around.

A developer recently put up flex buildings in Centreville, Queen Anne's county seat and one of its larger commercial areas. But in this "town with a past and a future," as its motto goes, the past is still more obvious.

In the tiny historic downtown, the Federal and Victorian homes outnumber the 19th-century commercial buildings. You'd have to drive about 15 miles west to the earth-tone structures of the Chesapeake Bay Business Park, hard against the Bay Bridge, to see the clustering of jobs that is so common in the suburbs nowadays.

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