The number of employed Maryland residents has fallen so sharply that it's hit a low not seen in nearly a decade.
Last month, 2.7 million adults in the state had jobs - about 135,000 fewer than the year before, according to newly released U.S. Labor Department estimates. Not since November 2001 have so few Marylanders been employed, and the decline happened even as the overall population grew.
The economic downshifting has been rapid, overtaxing the state's unemployment benefits fund and making job seekers re-evaluate whether it's even worth looking. The state's labor force - people working or applying for work - shrunk faster in 2009 than in any 12-month period since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the figure in 1976.
Joblessness has worsened nationwide, but only nine states lost a greater share of people from their labor force than Maryland in the past year, said Charles W. McMillion, president and chief economist of MBG Information Services in Washington.
"It's really bad," said McMillion, who suspects some are leaving the state to take a job or look for work. "This has been a very serious downturn for Maryland."
It's not simply that Maryland businesses are laying people off, though they are - 8,700 last month alone, according to federal estimates. The problem is there are also fewer employers.
About 139,000 employers were counted by the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation at the end of 2009, the lowest number since 2004. Just as population typically grows, the number of employers opening for business usually outpaces closures, but not last year when a net of 2,900 employers were shuttered, according to the agency.
The state's unemployment rate rose sharply in response, hitting a 26-year high of 7.5 percent last month. But the large drop in the overall labor force means that rate isn't capturing the full scope of joblessness. If everyone who dropped out of the labor force in the past year were still looking for work here, Maryland's unemployment rate would be 10 percent, McMillion noted.
That narrows the gap between Maryland - normally a low-unemployment state - and the rest of the country. Unemployment is officially 10 percent nationwide and would be 11 percent if all the labor-force dropouts were still applying for positions.
Maryland's situation remains a lot better than in the hardest-hit states. In Michigan, for instance, nearly 15 percent of people are out of work, and that doesn't count people who have given up looking for work.
That's true for Albert Williams, 47, who has worked in catering and food service at hospitals, country clubs and schools since graduating from culinary college in 1992. The Locust Point resident has been out of work before in the seasonal catering business. But he hasn't seen a job market like this one.
"This is probably the hardest time," said Williams, who was searching for job openings Friday at the Baltimore Works Career Center on Eutaw Street, operated jointly by city and state agencies. "Normally, I get picked up pretty quickly."
Williams, who has been a line cook, pastry chef and, most recently, a catering supervisor, was laid off in December by a company that provides food service and catering for the Maryland Institute College of Art. The number of catered events and parties had been dropping, he said. He's qualified to work as an executive chef or sous-chef, he said, but with the tough economy and numerous restaurant closings, "those positions don't open up."
He spends part of every day at the career center, updating his resume and contacting employers. The response he's gotten is that he's overqualified.
"That's the discouraging part," said Williams, who has a 15-year-old daughter and said he would be happy to work as a line cook. "Right now, work is work."
Karen Brown, a Reservoir Hill resident with a doctorate in metro urban management, is getting the same "overqualified" message.
Brown ran a faith-based nonprofit for two decades before finding herself out of work in May. She said the job market has radically changed in the 20 years since she last sought work fresh out of seminary school. Employers have told her they're inundated with resumes. Others have advertised positions they won't be able to fill for months.
"It's a whole different world now," said Brown, who was searching job openings Friday at the Baltimore career center.
She was able to find a job in November, but it didn't last. Brown, who is single, worries that she will deplete her savings. She's hoping to find a job in management but has resigned herself to working for less than she previously earned.
It's not easy for entry-level workers, either. An "enormous" number of people are competing for those positions, said Phil Holmes, vice president of public policy and development at Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that specializes in helping people with spotty work records find and train for jobs.