Maryland's job base took a U-turn back to growth in February, increasing by 8,100 positions after three consecutive months of losses, the U.S. Department of Labor said Friday.
The federal agency also said January wasn't quite as bad as it originally estimated, with 5,100 jobs lost in Maryland rather than the 7,100 it measured earlier. Even so, the February growth wasn't enough to make up for the previous three months, when employers cut 10,700 jobs from the state's total.
State officials cheered the initial estimate of February growth, which showed a significantly faster pace than the nation's after a worse-than-average showing in January. The state unemployment rate fell to 7.1 percent from January's 7.2 percent.
"February 2011 was a strong month for job growth in Maryland," said Alexander M. Sanchez, the state's labor secretary.
But some economists cautioned against reading too much into the figure. It can be maddening to try to gauge the pace of the job market — or sometimes even its direction — because the federal statistics rely on surveys and can be revised substantially as more information filters in. The apparent 25,000 jobs the state gained over the 12 months that ended in December were ratcheted back to about 4,500 after a revision earlier this month.
"I wouldn't exactly break out champagne and party hats just yet," said Daraius Irani, director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute, Towson University's economic consulting arm.
Month-to-month comparisons are even trickier. Those statistics include adjustments that try to account for normal seasonal variations, something that's hard to do when economic conditions — or even weather conditions — are not so normal. The federal figures showed the state losing nearly 30,000 jobs in February 2010, the month the twin snowstorms hit, and then gaining a little more than that number the next month.
Economist Charles W. McMillion likes to look instead at the two-month trend to avoid some of what he considers statistical "noise." He is concerned that Maryland's net gain in January and February came entirely from government — the private sector cut 100 jobs during the two months, while government added 3,100.
"The economy in Maryland stalled sometime in the summer or early fall and is still very weak," said McMillion, president and chief economist of MBG Information Services in Washington.
Looming federal budget cuts are the X factor for Maryland's economy, which is heavily influenced by federal jobs and spending on contractors. The debate in Congress is no longer aimed at whether to reduce but rather by how much — and it's not easy for employers to plan, because political leaders still haven't passed a budget for the current year.
But at least one group isn't too worried — people with security clearances. Only 17 percent of cleared employees based in Maryland, Washington and Virginia said they were "extremely concerned" about the possibility of canceled projects, while 28 percent said they weren't concerned at all, according to a survey conducted from October through January by ClearanceJobs.com.
Evan Lesser, managing director of the company, which links defense, homeland security and intelligence employers with security-cleared professionals, said most of the discussion about defense-related cuts seems to be aimed at weapons systems and other large projects built elsewhere.
"What has a big impact in D.C. [and nearby] is intelligence, IT, engineering, policy, things of that nature," he said. "And those are not really on the chopping block at this point."
In Maryland, the government sector expanded by 4,600 jobs in February, according to the Labor Department's initial estimates. The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation attributed the gain in part to community college employment. Professional and business services, a sector flush with government contractors, added 2,300 jobs, while the leisure and hospitality sector added 1,400.
But the normally steady growth sector of education and health services added just 200 jobs in February after cutting in January, according to the estimates. The biggest drop came in trade, transportation and utilities, which includes retailers and was down by 1,000 jobs.
Financial employers are still cutting overall, but some banks are hiring again. M&T Bank Corp. is seeing a steady upturn in business and has an "urgent need" for more workers as a result, said Melinda Maluga, administrative vice president of human resources for M&T's Mid-Atlantic region. The company wants to hire people for about 175 jobs in Maryland, just over 100 of them in the Baltimore area.
"We have a significant increase in job openings right now," she said.