Employers in the state cut 5,900 jobs in March, but nearly 12,000 more Marylanders were working, dropping the unemployment rate below 7 percent for the first time in two years, the federal government estimated Tuesday.
That apparent contradiction — fewer jobs, more workers — could be the result of a growing number of people commuting to jobs outside the state. Maryland labor officials say it could also reflect more people starting their own businesses — data that isn't picked up in the job count.
Maryland job creation has zigzagged between gains and losses in recent months, which makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the direction of the economy.
Add the starkly different pictures of March painted by the two surveys — one of households, the other of employers — and it's that much more "perplexing," Towson University economist Daraius Irani said.
Irani, the director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson, said the state certainly is facing economic challenges, including rising gas prices — a problem for employers who transport goods — and a shrinking federal budget.
"I don't think we're out of the woods just yet," Irani said.
The figures released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Labor are adjusted to account for normal seasonal changes in hiring and layoffs. Because they're drawn from surveys, they can be revised as more information trickles in.
State job growth in February, for example, was downgraded Tuesday to 7,700 jobs, from the more than 8,000 announced last month.
Maryland's mixed jobs situation comes amid a backdrop of improving conditions in most of the country. Unemployment rates dropped in 34 states in March, while jobs increased in 38, the Labor Department reported.
Maryland was one of a dozen states that lost jobs. Hardest hit was California, where employers cut 11,600 jobs. Connecticut lost 6,000 jobs; Louisiana — like Maryland — lost 5,900.
In Maryland, employment declined across most major sectors. Trade, transportation and utilities, which includes retailers, lost 2,400 jobs. The professional and business services sector, which is heavy with government contractors, shed 2,200 jobs, erasing its February gains.
Among the other sectors with declining employment was government, though that sector fell by a more modest 500 positions.
Maryland Labor Secretary Alexander M. Sanchez said he's optimistic about future growth. The number of job openings posted throughout the state was up to nearly 80,000 as of Tuesday, he said.
Locally, the big hiring activity Tuesday was at McDonald's. The fast food chain's "National Hiring Day" drew applicants for up to 50,000 restaurant crew and manager jobs, more than 500 of them in the Baltimore region.
The company always increases employment in the spring, but decided to get as many interviews as possible done in a single day in hopes of attracting publicity and changing perceptions about a "McJob."
The campaign did get people's attention: The line of applicants at the McDonald's restaurant on North Avenue in Baltimore on Tuesday morning spilled out of the building and down the street. At one point, the company said, as many as 100 people stood in the queue.
"Turnout has been good," said Angelique Kelly-Lara, McDonald's director of human resources for the Baltimore-Washington region.
Also on Tuesday, a German manufacturer announced that it would expand its Carroll County operations, adding jobs in the next few years.
Knorr Brake Corp. now employs more than 230 workers in Westminster, its North American headquarters for a division that makes brake systems for passenger rail. Knorr intends to build a larger facility at the Westminster Technology Park to open at the end of 2012 or early 2013, thanks to two new contracts.
With the new facility could come 10 to 15 additional hires a year for several years, said David Moore, Knorr's finance director.
He said the company wanted to keep its division in the area to retain the workers it already has.
"If we were to move it out of the state, particularly down South, we would probably lose a majority of the knowledge base we have with our employees, and that wasn't something we were going to do," Moore said.
Maryland's unemployment rate of 6.9 percent remains lower than the national rate of 8.8 percent.
Part of that difference reflects Maryland's shrinking labor force, which has declined more rapidly than the national labor force.
Though the state labor force grew in March, it's smaller by 37,000 people than it was two years ago. Job seekers are counted as unemployed only if they're actively looking for work.
Debbie Nelson has been in and out of the labor pool the last few years. Now the East Baltimore woman is taking computer classes four days a week to update her skills in hopes of landing an administrative job.
Nelson's last full-time position was in 2008 — she's worked temporary jobs since then, none of them in offices — and she knew she needed to increase her typing speed and brush up on key software programs.
"I feel like I'm getting there," Nelson said as she sat at her computer at Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake in Baltimore, which is providing the training.