Jobless rate in Md. dips to 3.5%

Unemployment reaches lowest level since boom of 2000


Maryland's unemployment rate dropped to 3.5 percent last month, the lowest since the economic boom times of 2000, the federal government reported yesterday.

The state's jobless measurement - down from 3.6 percent in January - remains significantly better than the nation's, which was 4.8 percent last month. Maryland's rate is nearing record lows and hasn't been this low since May 2000.

Employers in the state helped make that possible by adding 5,800 jobs in February, according to preliminary seasonally adjusted numbers from the U.S. Labor Department.

Such job creation is relatively strong, a level more typical of the late 1990s and 2000. If businesses keep adding jobs at February's pace, the state would have nearly 70,000 more jobs over the next 12 months - though economists think the neighborhood of 50,000 is more likely this year.

That's because there aren't enough workers for more growth, they say. When businesses can't fill an open position, it doesn't get counted as a job.

Maryland employers added 34,300 jobs over the past 12 months, according to the preliminary numbers. That's a growth rate of 1.4 percent, a pace that slightly lagged behind the nation's.

"I think we've returned to the tight labor market conditions of the late '90s and into 2000, but hiring is off a little bit," said John Hopkins, associate director for applied economics at RESI, Towson University's research and consulting arm. "I think [it] isn't attaining its potential based on the lack of available workers."

Companies tell Hopkins that they're having trouble finding qualified workers.

But they're not hiring "as indiscriminately" as they did in the late 1990s, when a pulse was sometimes qualification enough, he said.

Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, said he expects the state's growth this year will top out at about 50,000 jobs, thanks to worker shortages.

And that's with an expanding pool of people who are working or looking, which grew by 10,200 adults last month.

(Because the government's job and labor figures are culled from separate surveys, the number of jobs and employed people aren't necessarily the same - in part because significant numbers of Marylanders work in Washington.)

"Maryland has nothing to worry about in the intermediate term except a shortage of workers," Clinch said. "It's very clear we're going to have consistent growth over the year."

Over the longer term, the expanding federal deficit - and consumer debt - could cause problems nationally and in Maryland, which relies on federal spending, said Charles W. McMillion, president and chief economist at MBG Information Services, a business information, analysis and forecasting firm in Washington.

But the state's economy is doing well currently, he said.

"It looks terrific," he said.

As usual, the professional and business services sector led the way in employment gains in Maryland, adding 9,600 jobs in the 12 months ending in February.

Other top gainers were education and health services, up 9,200 jobs, and construction, up 5,700 jobs.

Manufacturers continued to shrink, cutting 3,500 jobs over the 12-month period.

Unemployment rates improved in the Baltimore area just as they did statewide, according to numbers from the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which are compiled during the same U.S. Labor Department process.

The local figures, which are not adjusted for seasonal variations, showed the following:

In Anne Arundel, unemployment dropped to 3.1 percent last month from 3.4 percent in January.

In Baltimore City, it dropped to 6.4 percent from 6.8 percent.

In Baltimore County, it dropped to 4 percent from 4.1 percent.

In Carroll, it dropped to 3 percent from 3.2 percent.

In Harford, it dropped to 3.5 percent from 3.7 percent.

In Howard, it dropped to 2.6 percent - lowest in the state - from 2.8 percent.

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