Md. unemployment rises to 7.4 percent

Worse job market since '83 expected to improve over 2010

December 19, 2009|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

Two years after the country spiraled into a severe recession, Marylanders' job prospects are still getting worse.

The state's unemployment rate rose to 7.4 percent last month from 7.3 percent in October, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated Friday. That adds up to nearly 220,000 residents actively looking for work, twice as many as there were at the end of 2007. The situation seemed to be stabilizing in the summer, when the unemployment rate stopped rising, but the pause was only temporary.

Economists say they're seeing signs of general economic improvement, but they noted that it can take a while before businesses feel confident enough to hire - let alone to hire in large enough numbers to drive unemployment down. So far, firms are still cutting.

Maryland employers shed 1,900 jobs last month, according to the Labor Department's preliminary statistics, which are adjusted to try to account for seasonal variations. All told, the state had about 41,000 fewer jobs in November than it did a year earlier.

It's the worst job market for Marylanders since 1983, when the country was suffering the after-effects of a double-dip recession. The thought that it's even worse elsewhere - the U.S. unemployment rate was 10 percent last month - doesn't make local job seekers feel much better.

"I've never had such a hard time," said Rob Babiak, 35, a Nottingham resident who was laid off from a financial analyst position last month and is looking for work in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware. "I know people have been out six, nine months, I understand that. But it's not comforting."

What he does find somewhat comforting is that many Maryland businesses are telling the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond's Baltimore office that they expect better times soon.

In the Fed's November survey of 150 firms in Maryland, 60 percent said they were counting on growth in the next six months, compared with just 15 percent expecting a pullback, said Andy Bauer, the office's regional economist. Eighty-five percent said they did not plan to cut jobs during that period.

"About 30 percent are expecting to increase the number of employees," Bauer said.

He thinks Maryland's unemployment rate is about as high as it's going to get. By this time next year, he expects it will be lower - but not as low as job seekers would like.

"It's probably not going to come down as fast as we've seen following other recessions," Bauer said, "just because those sectors where we've had the most job loss - construction, financial services, retail trade - are going to be slow to recover."

One of the constraints, particularly in construction, is that lenders are wary of extending credit, said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. He said Maryland's unemployment rate could bounce around for a while, possibly flirting with 8 percent.

"The nation fell off a cliff; Maryland kind of rolled down a hill," Clinch said of the recession. "So we probably haven't borne the full brunt of it yet. I'm not saying we're going to fall off a cliff, but we're not going to recover quite as fast because we haven't fallen quite as far."

Two job search engines - Indeed.com and Juju.com - have each declared the Baltimore metro area the second-easiest among large regions for finding a job, judging by the number of unemployed workers and advertised positions. Topping both lists: Washington, D.C.

But unemployment in Maryland is more than high enough that the economy is shaping up to be a major political issue next year - both in the General Assembly session beginning in January and in the campaign for governor. Just over 80 percent of residents polled by the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center on Public Policy said creating and keeping jobs should be a "very important" priority for the state next year.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, said this month that he supports giving a $3,000 tax credit to businesses for every unemployed Marylander they hire, a one-year incentive that would be capped at $20 million. He also proposed putting $10 million toward state guarantees of bank loans made to small businesses, to get more credit flowing, and changing unemployment-benefit eligibility calculations to snag $127 million in federal incentives. The federal money would mean a smaller - though still hefty - automatic tax increase next year for employers.

The loan program sounds good, said Kathleen T. Snyder, president and chief executive of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. But the trade group said businesses would rather forgo the federal money for the unemployment-insurance program, because the changes required to get it would add costs every year.

"There's a short-term gain ... but there's a long-term cost," Snyder said.

She said the chamber also fears that the General Assembly, to deal with budget woes, will look to raise or impose other taxes on businesses next year. "The work place is really tight still, and having any additional taxes over and above the unemployment-insurance tax increase, I think, would be very harmful," she said.

Babiak, the Baltimore County resident looking for work, came to Maryland 2 1/2 years ago for a job and might leave for the same reason. He had an interview this week in Delaware, where his family lived before. That state's unemployment rate is higher than Maryland's, but he sees more opportunities there in finance.

His wife, a stay-at-home parent, is looking for work, too.

"It's just tough times for everybody right now," said Babiak, a father of three. "History shows we'll come out of it, and we'll probably be out of it in the next year, I'm sure. But I can't really wait a year for a job."

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