It's Slow, But Job Picture In Md. May Be Getting Brighter

July 31, 2009|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,jay.hancock@baltsun.com

Jeff Quinton was laid off from an information-technology job in early July and immediately began sending out resumes and making calls to find a new gig.

At first, nothing. The Perry Hall resident, 35, got a few robot e-mail acknowledgments of his application and a rejection. Nothing like a real prospect. His health coverage runs out at the end of the month.

This week the phone started to ring. A recruiting agency in Hanover was beefing up its help desk. A social media company in Washington was expanding. An information-technology consultant in Baltimore had several openings.

"I'm feeling better than I was a few weeks ago," says Quinton. "I wasn't getting anything and now, all of the sudden, I've got like two or three calls."

Let us hope that Mr. Quinton is a proxy for Baltimore, the nation and the world. The stock market is up. House prices seem to have stopped plunging. Analysts talk about economic growth for the second half of 2009.

But the recession won't really be over until companies begin hiring and unemployment rates show signs of falling from the highest levels in more than two decades.

They're not doing it yet.

This week the Federal Reserve's "Beige Book," which generally contains the freshest economic reports from the government, said the economy from Maryland to South Carolina "remained weak" this month.

Maryland unemployment hit 7.3 percent last month - far lower than the national rate of 9.5 percent but still at its highest level since 1983.

Even so, there are signs that the job market, especially locally, is poised for a comeback.

Information from Indeed.com, which collects help-wanted ads from Career Builder, Monster and many other sources, shows Baltimore and Washington with by far the most job opportunities in the country as a proportion of the population. Baltimore was the No. 2 metro area, with almost twice as many job openings per capita as No. 5 Hartford, Conn.

Employers and recruiters see glimmers of a turnaround.

"We do feel like we've bottomed out," says Michael Bettick, a Baltimore-based regional vice president with the Mergis Group, which connects employers with job seekers. "It seems like April was kind of the bottom end. May kind of stabilized. June was as good as May or better, and by all indications July is coming in as good as June."

RWD Technologies, based in Baltimore County, laid off 280 of its global work force of about 1,280 in the past year, including about 50 locally. Now the corporate training and industrial-process consultant is thinking about hiring again.

"We're beginning to see our clients, which are mostly large corporations, loosen the purse strings and begin to start projects that they had been deferring," said RWD CEO Laurens MacLure. "We're beginning to at least develop a pipeline of candidates that we can hire when we get the work. We're still going to be a little slow to hire - we're going to wait until we actually land the work."

The region's reliance on government, education and health care partly explains why the employment picture looks better for metro Baltimore. Those sectors have been hurt far less than manufacturing, finance and real estate.

It's not that metro Baltimore is surging; it's that almost everywhere else has been sinking. Metro Detroit has only a sixth as many job listings per capita as Baltimore, according to Indeed.com.

But there are forces that may explain the positive signs local companies and job-seekers are seeing. While most of the $4 billion in stimulus money due Maryland isn't here yet, employers know it's on the way, know where it's aimed and are starting to scout potential workers for stimulus-related jobs.

The Defense Department's base-realignment process, projected to eventually bring tens of thousands of jobs to Maryland, gets off the ground this year. That's probably also prompting the hiring machinery to crank over a couple times.

And the larger economic picture is brightening. "The pace of decline has moderated" and "activity has begun to stabilize," said the Beige Book's summary of the national economy.

Don't be too optimistic. It'll be slow. It looks like as many as a fourth of the 46,000 Baltimore-area jobs listed by Indeed require "secret" security clearances, which can take many months to complete and which obviously not everybody qualifies for.

But the trend is in the right direction.

"This stimulus package - everybody's waiting for it to kick in," said Mergis' Bettick. "It hasn't trickled down to the commercial sector yet, but everybody's trying to line up their ducks."

Job postings per capita

Metro areas with the most job postings per 1,000 people:

Washington 133 Seattle 53

Baltimore 90 Salt Lake City 52

San Jose 80 Denver 50

Austin 56 Boston 49

Hartford 54 Las Vegas 49

Source: Indeed.com

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